Getting clear on “success”


Too often we are vague about our definitions of success. We don’t really clarify what we mean by “successful,” or we take on somebody’s else’s definition (maybe a family member’s) and work toward it without actually asking ourselves if it’s what we want.

Or, our idea of success is all tied up with money, even though the amount of money we make and the feeling of being successful are very different things.

My current definition of success is “knowing and understanding myself better and better and showing up for others who want to do the same.”

Notice how I can go into literally any situation and be successful based on my personal definition? Can I be this version of success working as a receptionist? Check. Can I be this version of success at a cocktail party? Check. Can I be this version of success in prison? Sure.

For me, a definition of success that works is one that lights me up, one I feel deeply connected to, and one that is NOT dependent on an external circumstance that is outside of my control.

I can live my current definition of success when I’m writing or when I’m coaching a client, but I can also live it when I’m with a friend, at the dentist’s office, or riding the bus. I may or may not choose to act on this definition, say, at the dentist’s office, but it can still light me up while I’m there.

The problem with getting too situation-specific with our definitions of success is not that it’s unlikely we can make whatever situation it is happen. (We’re very often led into the exact situations we want because our interests, passions and curiosities take us right to them.) This is not at all about saying, well, it’s unlikely to happen so don’t dream it! It is wonderful, and necessary, to dream big. But let me give you a little example of what I’m talking about.

Say your definition of success is “becoming an Oscar-winning filmmaker.” First off, winning an Oscar is never going to be totally within your control. (Even if your film is nominated for best picture, you can be snubbed in the director category; just ask Ben Affleck.)

Still, could this definition of success be one that lights you up and that you feel deeply connected to? Sure. The idea of winning an Oscar one day could totally inspire you to make great films.

The problem with this definition of success is that winning an Oscar for your film isn’t really what you want. It’s only the costume your definition of success wears. The real definition of success beneath that Oscar disguise might be something like this: “My definition of success is making movies that affect others in a powerful way.”

But wait: Even that is not really it. “Making movies” is still window-dressing for something else. Let’s try again: “My definition of success is telling stories that affect others in a powerful way.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. “Telling stories” is close enough to the essence of what you want to do that this definition of success can work if you’re a receptionist, at a cocktail party, or in prison. You’re not dependent on standing behind a camera with a crew behind you in order to tell stories.

But wait: There’s still a problem with this definition of success. “Telling stories that affect others in a powerful way.”

Do you see it?

It’s dependent on an external circumstance. You do not have any real control over how others react to you. I know that’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s true. You might be able to give me all kinds of evidence that seems to prove that you have some kind of control over others’ reactions, but it won’t hold water. In the end, the way others react is up to them. They are choosing to react to something in a powerful way, by what they’re thinking about it, based on who they are and their experiences.

This is why I can think What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a beautiful and amazing movie, and my friend’s brother falls asleep twenty minutes into it.

So what’s actually the definition of success we’re really looking for here?

How about this: “My definition of success is telling stories that affect me in a powerful way.”

Because YOU are the only one you truly have any control over affecting. The only person you are guaranteed to inspire is yourself. Which is very good news. Imagine if we all went around inspiring ourselves rather than angsting over whether or not we were inspiring others enough?

Ahhh. So, can you have this definition of success working as a receptionist? At a cocktail party? In prison? In a box? With a fox? Totally.

This doesn’t mean you don’t pursue becoming an Oscar-winning moviemaker if that’s what lights you up. Of course you do! It’s just an invitation to notice that the core essence of what you want doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with getting behind a camera or holding a golden statuette. Knowing this actually frees you up to pursue success — as you define it — in any number of ways. It isn’t out there, when the “great thing” happens — it’s within you, right now.

What might you do differently if “success” were already here? How do you act when you feel successful  right now?

Work With Me: I help writers, artists, artisans and coaches who are feeling stuck get moving again. I have openings for new clients in April. Learn more, here.

Image is “Bridge into the Mountains” © Pat Young | Dreamstime Stock Photos

8 thoughts on “Getting clear on “success”

  1. Hi Jill,
    Thank you for this piece: for me, it reads as true, brave and timely. I hope you write more about this ….


  2. Jill, this post is fantastic. I love how you give a specific example and take it from externally-dependent to the independent “in here” essence of it. So good.


  3. Hi Jill, I think that your definition of success is brilliant!

    Once again, you’ve given me more food for thought. 🙂

    Something that I’ve been pondering on in my own life situation is this … What goals do I want to set for myself now, at this stage of my life? I’ve not been clear on that lately. And, the setting goals ties in with my personal definition of success.

    Without a clear definition of success, how can a person possibly set personal goals? That would be true regardless of their age and stage of life.

    I think I see a glimmer. A glimmer of what “success” would look like to me. The me that’s in the second act of life.

    Oh (and by the way), we just watched Gilbert Grape recently. Neither of us had seen it before. For me, it’s a movie that I will watch again.


    • Marie, you’re so right — without a clear, personal definition of success, it truly can be very confusing to attempt to set goals for ourselves. I’m glad you’re getting that “glimmer” of what success might be for you at this point! I find that my definition of success changes as I do, but always seems to revolve around the same basic themes.

      Glad you watched “Gilbert Grape”! It’s one of my favorite movies.


  4. Jill, Your framework for success is so revolutionary by all conventional standards and yet so doable and right by my own.


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