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The Elusive Definition of “Success” (and Why It Makes Us Feel Bad)

My left nasal passage is completely blocked, there is a dull thump of pressure behind my right ear, and my eyes sting with fatigue like someone just chopped an onion. To me, right now, success means feeling better. It means stepping outside with a jump in my step and air in my nose. Deciding what I want to eat based on taste and texture instead of fiber and vitamin C. Laughing without coughing.

This close-range focus is one of the few upsides to catching a cold. For a few days, you get to be utterly self-concerned, and all other pursuits must be allayed to make room for a new goal, which is defined, in sight, and involves rest. Recovery. It’s a challenge contained.

I suppose this is the appeal of setting small, attainable goals in all facets of life — of redefining success based on what you need right here, right now. It blocks out the egomaniacal noise of ambition and replaces the big picture with a small one. Get better. Try something for the first time. Say hello.

But that perspective can be hard to come by in our think-big culture. It’s far easier to focus on where we want to be rather than where we want to be next, which makes success increasingly tricky to define and pursue. So what does success actually mean, when we don’t have a virus to define it for us?

“I did not consider [the concept of] success much until I fell ‘behind’ my peers in terms of outward/material signs of it,” Katharine, 34, replied, when I called for women to tell me about their relationship with the word success. “I’ve never known what it means to me, but I know that I don’t feel successful.”


Katharine sees success as a measure of comparison. As does Anna, 28, who defined success as “achieving more than what would be considered ‘average.’” But far more who replied were concerned with actively railing against that notion — or, more explicitly, the idea that success meant fame, riches or recognition. To these people, success was (or ought to be) something privately and personally defined.

“Success is figuring yourself out enough to realize what you want out of life and pursuing that goal fruitfully,” said Hannah, 24. “Pretty real as a mid-twenty-year-old, when some peers are putting down mortgages and others are still living that ketamine life.”

One of the most interesting trends I noticed among these answers was the distinct dichotomy between those who equate success with a checklist and those who refuse to. “[Success is] the feeling of no longer stressing about money, feeling good about going to work in the morning, and having the freedom to explore your passions outside of work,” said Sam, 25, of the former group, echoing many who defined success as balancing several thriving life pillars, like a fulfilling career, a loving social network, a comfortable bank account and a sense of self-worth.

“[Success is] knowing you tried your hardest, no matter what the results end up being,” said Emily, 28, of the latter group, which was more concerned with the improbability of “having it all.”

“I’m successful when I find joy in what I do, especially if I’m implementing something I’ve learned,” said Jill, 30.

“Being able to live not caring about societal bullshit,” said Jenny, 37.

“Possessing serenity,” said Karen, 47.

(I have a theory that the definition of success becomes simpler as you age.)

Many spoke of success as a measure of expectations being met or surpassed (a successful party, a successful book, a successful run) — a definition I both relate to and shy away from increasingly as I age, since I’ve come to see life as managing a series of incorrect expectations. Tons defined it more simply as happiness or contentment, but stopped short of explaining what, exactly, makes them happy or content, and whether that’s consistently bifurcated from the traditional trappings of success, like recognition or popularity.

Leandra told me she used to believe success was simply happiness, too — which she often equated with financial freedom — but later came to see that as perilous. “Happiness starts to sound too superficial as a definition for success because it’s such a wavering state,” she told me. “And if you don’t accept that, you never actually get to experience happiness, because you’re way too caught up trying to chase it. And I think once you do accept it, you realize its flappability and that perhaps what you’re really pursuing, or what I’m really pursuing, is fulfillment.”

Success is one of those interesting modern paradoxes in that everyone seems to want it, regardless of their definition of it, but few feel they’ve achieved it personally. Perhaps this is because we often frame success, as I did with my seasonal cold, around that which we don’t have. A pursuit without an end. A goal which moves as soon as we reach it. Or simply “being ‘better than you are now,’ in one way or another,” as Ashley, 27, put it.


But how “better” is defined wildly varies and, I suspect, can have a big impact on one’s general wellbeing. “I think your definition of success will almost always be contingent on what you value,” said Gabrielle, 23. “Success in a Western context is unsurprisingly bound by metrics that are material or superficial in nature; that’s what our culture values. Status and ‘coolness’ and money are important to people. I personally want to value wholeness. I want to value strong relationships. I want to value curiosity, finding my gifts in the world, and giving them uncompromisingly. Success to you is probably going to be the actualization and fulfillment of your values in your life, whether they be earth-bound or heart-level. That’s not to say that the two aren’t connected but rather that we often may give the former disproportionate weight when defining success.”

What struck me most while looking through these answers is that, whether we’re good at internalizing this or not, most of us aren’t interested in defining success by superficial metrics. But defining it in more personal terms doesn’t necessarily make it more attainable, either. Trying to maintain a certain mood (happiness), for instance, or be free of hardship (“do what I want, when I want,” as one said), could be just as heart-crushing a pursuit as something more resume-based.

I was most taken by those who defined success as an action within their power instead of an achievement or desired state. Not perfection, but acceptance. Not self-love, but self-compassion. Not a win, but an effort. I could reframe my current cold, through this lens, as a success not because I’ll eventually get better, but because in my attempt to do so, I’ll have paused, rested my body, and taken care of it.

How do you define success?

Graphic by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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