If you’re asking the question, “What is success?” you may already be in trouble.
Because that’s a question only you can answer for yourself, and only I can answer for myself.
And this answer is tricky or simple, depending on your perspective.
For example, success could mean moving up from sleeping on the street to sleeping in a beat up van. That’s definitely a nice upgrade considering the circumstances.
It could mean graduating college and moving up to build a billion dollar brand. I don’t need to convince anyone that the founder of a billion dollar empire is a business success.
Success could mean calling your dad who you haven’t talked to in years and mending a relationship. It could mean quitting the job that sucked your soul, even though you don’t know your next steps.
Or it could mean holding onto hope after your business goes bankrupt, and continuing to move forward as you go through one personal and career failure after another.
Success doesn’t always look like success, it’s deceptive at times.
Personally, I believe that success comes down to knowing what you want (Step 1), and then pursuing that at all costs (Step 2). If you do that, there’s no other option left but to win.
Success is all about moving forward and making progress.
And this progress isn’t always seen on the outside in terms of awards or appreciation. More often than not, the best feelings of success comes from the inside, where you’re proud of yourself for taking a chance and giving your best effort.
Success is when your actions align with your values and you’re living true to yourself. As William Shakespeare highlighted, “This above all; to thine own self be true.”
But for most people in America, success is a choice of three different realities—all with their perks and downsides.
Let’s look in-depth at these and then we’ll define your success.
Option 1: Success Is Freedom
Time spent working each week: 0 to 20 hours
Occupations: Blogger, freelancer, online business owner, part-time worker
Being free to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with no boss or authority figure in the way is the definition of success for millions of people in the US and across the world.
Waking up without an alarm clock is their dream.
These people come from all different backgrounds. They can be digital nomads and world travelers, or simply people who enjoy doing work around the house and answering to no one.
They can be the most or least adventurous soul, but their soul needs freedom to feel their best.
For example, it’s why The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is such a hit. Millions of people love the idea of spending the least amount of time working as possible (I mean only four hours a week is incredible), while still being able to pay for their bills and entertainment.
These people want just enough money to be free from financial worry, but they don’t have aspirations to be a billionaire or appear on Forbes Magazine richest list. And they’ll often cite the Wall Street Journal study showing $75,000 is the perfect income for maximum happiness to prove their reasoning.
But going back to our example, I could gather a large crowd who wouldn’t want this kind of success. They don’t think of success in terms of freedom away from the world’s demands.
And that’s why this question, “What is success?” is impossible to answer in one broad stroke. Another group views success as strictly achievement.
Option 2: Success Is Achievement
Time spent working each week: 80 to 100+ hours
Occupations: Business owner, lawyer, doctor, banker
Multi-million dollar checks and getting famous is the definition of success for many entrepreneurs, highly-educated professionals, athletes, and artists.
But what stacks up higher than any dollar amount or level of fame is their drive for achievement. No matter the field, they strive to outcompete the best of the best.
They’re not comfortable punting on achievement for something else like freedom. Because take away their competitive passion and they’re miserable, lost souls who don’t have anything better to do with their time.
That’s just how they’re wired, with a deep conviction to perform, so there’s not much changing their ways.
To reach their ambitions, the people who see success as achievement have to put in an enormous amount of work day after day. So it’s easy to see how they work 100 hours or more, every single week—it just comes with the territory.
For example, it seems it’s impossible to become a tech giant without constantly working to build and expand. This Entrepreneur magazine article discloses how hard the elite work to keep an edge on their competition.
The formula for their definition of success is work multiplied by more work, and little else to distract them from their cause. These guys and girls value achievement over freedom and work-life balance.
So good luck getting Elon Musk to work 40 hours and call it a week because he needs to watch TV and relax. Or getting him to put his business on hold to travel the world for 18 months.
And the third group is where you’ll find the majority of people, who aren’t interested in dedicating no time or all of their time to their work.
Option 3: Success Is Work-Life Balance
Time spent working each week: 35 to 55 hours
Occupations: Teacher, sales, accountant, engineer, IT worker, etc.
The work-life balance group doesn’t want to leave society to travel through jungles, beaches, and deserts like the freedom-focused group. But this group also doesn’t want to run the world from their skyscrapers in New York, London, and Hong Kong like the ambitious group.
Success to them means dabbling in a healthy dose of both work and play. Why choose between freedom and achievement when you can have a little of both?
Susan has the time of her life watching her kids grow up and having the extra time to coach all three of their soccer teams. To her, raising healthy and caring kids can’t be topped.
Harrison doesn’t want more responsibility at his day job, because that might cut into the time he gets to golf, go fishing, and watch football on the weekends. And he doesn’t want to do his hobbies full-time or they will lose their special feeling.
These people like their life in the middle, where they can work to get paid and support who they need to. But they fully realize that their health, friends, laughter, exercise, and memories are most important.
As you can see, success looks like three entirely different realities depending on who you are and what you value: freedom, achievement, or work-life balance.
The point here is that you can’t box success in and say it’s one way or else. People are unique and have different views of a successful life.
But what do you consider a success?
How To Be Successful
To recap, some people will happily save money and live like a bird so they can to retire at age 35 because they hate working. Free time to travel, enjoy their favorite hobby, or spend time with their children is their definition of success.
Other people look at work as their oxygen and would rather die than retire from their career at age 35. These people want to work until the day they die and have dreams of becoming an all-time great.
And the third group says, “I want a little bit of both work and play. Why do I have to choose? Moderation is the best solution for happiness.”
Now that you see the three different definitions of success, it’s time to stop focusing on other people and focus on yourself.
Step 1: Define Your Success
What do you want to chase the rest of your life?
Is it complete freedom from work? Is it to build an empire no matter what it takes? Or is it the 40 hour workweek with relaxed nights and weekends?
Maybe you lean all the way to freedom on the left, or all the way to ambition on the right, though most likely somewhere in the middle is your happy place and definition of success. Odds are it’s somewhere between the 20 and 60 hours of work.
But the point is that you need to discover what it is you exactly want. Don’t settle for something your parents, friends, or society tells you is the right path. That will always end up in disappointment, and often disaster.
Discover what success means for you.
And it’s perfectly fine if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do. If that’s the case, I recommend you date yourself for a bit until you find some areas you’re passionate about.
Read books to “live other people’s lives” and see if that interests you. Books are great ways to pick up information without risking much money, time, or energy into an unknown endeavor.
Travel to build up your self-awareness. Going outside your comfort zone is proven to get your brain off autopilot and into reflection mode.
Follow a curiosity and see how far it takes you. Maybe it takes you through your entire career. Or maybe three weeks in you realize that this isn’t your cup of tea. So you itched that curiosity and now you move onto another one.
Talk to people in different fields and get honest perspectives of their day-to-day work. Or shadow them at work for a clear view of the job responsibilities.
There are thousands of ways to find what you want to do. The key is to experiment and continue looking. Eventually you’ll find your idea of a successful life through a sheer numbers game of experimentation and reflection.
Step 2: Take Initiative
Once you know what you want and where you fall on the freedom and ambition scale, it’s time to completely own that.
Embody that into every decision and action you take from this moment on. Make it your life’s work to aim for that with every ounce of energy you have.
If you want freedom, look for ways to build passive income through investing, a side hustle, or work a ton of hours for the next 5-10 years so you never have to work again.
If you want incredible achievement, start working at least 80 hours a week and relaxing less. Cut out all television, leisure, and minutes of procrastination.
If you want work-life balance, take steps to have both job security and strong relationships outside of work. Ask your coworkers out to happy hour. Join a bowling league or softball team. Spread your time out loosely to all of your interests.
Taking initiative both speeds up the process of freedom, achievement, or work-life balance. And lets you enjoy the process because you’re actions have purpose behind them.
You’ll appreciate the daily battle of tearing away from where you are and making steps toward where you want to go, when you know you’re doing what’s going to make you happy.
And when you take initiative and never give up, you will look back on your life and know you lived a successful one with zero regrets. You won’t say, “I wish I did that,” or, “Why didn’t I work harder for what I wanted?”
Taking initiative to your end goal is what I call success!
And take this Calvin Coolidge quote to heart in persevering toward your success,
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
This quote isn’t just for the ambitious crowd who wants to do big things. You also need persistence and determination to get to a place where you can only work 10 hours a week, or to find the perfect work-life balance and job that gives you what you want.
Believe that you have what it takes to lead the life you want, because you do. The human spirit is impossible to break when it’s committed.
Commit to your definition of success. And I’m positive your entire life will take shape how it’s supposed to.
Summing Up Success
To wrap this up, we’ve now answered the tough question, “What is success?”
As far as I’m concerned, success is clearly identifying what you want out of life and then going all out to reach that dream.
Don’t skip Step 1 and start hustling for something you don’t even want. (I’m talking to you Jenny, who took an engineering job to make your parents proud, when really you want to be an artist. And I’m calling you out Tom, who got your PhD for the prestige, not because you need it to do the work you love.)
And don’t get this process wrong by narrowing down what you want but not putting in the work to achieve it.
There are only two steps to live a successful life, promise yourself you’ll do them in order because then you’ll rejoice later on.
Let’s also stop being so harsh on other people who don’t have the same values as you. Each individual is different, so people should want different things out of their lives.
The world would be a terrible bore if everyone wanted to be a movie star or everyone wanted to be a stay at home parent.
Stay out of the negative, judgement lane and move over to the positive, encouragement lane. This will give you more energy to focus on what you want and initiating that reality for yourself.
The journey to get there is success in itself and the final destination becomes the icing on the cake!