We all have different ideas of what success should be. One woman I’ll call Elise bought into the Madison Avenue idea of what a successful woman should be. She had set her sights for happiness in the distant future. Since she was a child she had dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and her dream was encouraged by the single mother who had raised her.

Mom was a successful woman in her own right, having gone back to college after a messy divorce and eventually doing something she thoroughly enjoyed. She owned her own real estate business. A small business, nothing major, but she was happy.

Encouraging her daughter in her dream her mother often quoted the famous line,

“Do what you truly love, Elise, success will certainly follow.”

The fact that Elise had a dream to pursue was good for her. She knew what she wanted and made plans at a young age to achieve that goal. When others didn’t quite know what they were going to do after high school, Elise was confident and resolute in her choice. Her dream would bring her fame.     

Coming of age in a time when women were becoming more prominent in the corporate world, Elise held the belief that was presented via the media, and society, to women of her generation. Commercials, advertisements and the news subtly, (and sometimes, not so subtly), conveyed the message that you could only call yourself successful if you reached the highest pinnacle of your profession. The message was clear: women not only could, have it all,  they definitely should, have it all.

Happiness depended on absolute 100% success; nothing else would do. Elise felt that, only by becoming a famous couturier, would she be considered successful. At that time she would be respected, sought-after and, most of all, happy. She clung to her dream like a life-saver on a stormy sea. World-wide fame was the only way she could be happy. Wasn’t that the message of the day?

“When I…..and then I’ll…,” became a sort of mantra for Elise as she diligently worked  through design school while holding down various temp jobs. It was difficult and exhausting, and she had no social life at all, but she comforted herself with thoughts of future success as an international designer. Happiness was a few years away.

After graduating from Parsons School of Design, she worked a few years for small fashion houses. Nights and week-ends were spent designing her own clothing line. When she showed a few hand-made outfits to one of her employers, he agreed to put them on display. The designs were that good.  

Very soon she was selling her one-of-a-kind designs to women in society. She opened a small boutique in New York and did quite well. Well enough, in fact, to open another shop in Palm Beach, Florida. Her mother was proud of her.

She met and, then married, an intelligent man who owned an upscale restaurant in Chelsea. Their combined incomes gave them a glamorous lifestyle which included the freedom for frequent travel and lavish parties. It seemed to everyone that all of her dedication had paid off. Elise had a prosperous business and traveled the world with an equally successful husband.

So was Elise happy? No.

I Did What I loved, Where’s My Success?

Being someone with a dream is a good thing. It can only turn bad when the dream becomes distorted. If you are never satisfied with the goal you reach, all your success seems  worthless to you. The balance of being successful, and actually enjoying, that success is disrupted. 

Elise had given up a lot while pursuing her dream but her only idea of success hinged on being a world-renowned designer. The fact that a select group of wealthy patrons came to her for personally designed outfits didn’t mean she was successful, at least not in her mind. She let generic messages from the media and society decree what her success should be.                                                          

Intelligent and sophisticated as Elise is, the idea that she would allow anyone or anything to define personal success and happiness seems almost ridiculous. No one tells her how to run her business or how to design an outfit. She would never allow that. Yet she follows the criteria created by others for when she can be happy. It is unfortunate that we can be so heavily influenced by what “they,” (whoever “they” are), tell us, but even the savviest woman in charge of a major company permits this to happen at times.  

Define Your Own Life and Success

That she has a good marriage, financial security, and a fair share of success in her chosen field, is not enough. The precise standards she sets for her exclusive outfits are the same ones she sets for her happiness. Everything must be perfect and the price is high. But, what she doesn’t realize is, that while her designs are made of expensive materials and are quite costly, happiness is free.

She still keeps thinking that, if she could only get to be recognized globally, she would be happy. Elise is still waiting for her future dream to bring her happiness. In her case money didn’t buy her happiness.

You develop a relationship with certain ideas you have about success. But success, whether it involves money or renown, doesn’t have to meet only one gold standard. There are five essential keys to measure success.

  •  Understand That Success and Reality Go Hand in Hand

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then beauty’s cousin, success, is in an individual’s personal perception. Why should anyone dictate what success is for you?

You need to identify your own idea of success, not that of someone else. When you have done that, couple it with a healthy dose of reality in what you can achieve.

Both Belinda and Elise had pretty good lives and both failed to realize it. Each one had set-in-stone prerequisites for happiness which could not be met and which were self defeating.

  •  Have a Back-up Plan and a Secondary Goal

One of the best pieces of advice about success I have ever heard came from an actor friend. He talked about the importance of having a back-up plan for his professional goals. Both parts of his plan for success had to do with the theatre.

“I fully intend to make it as an actor on Broadway, but I also have a secondary goal. I want to direct plays. That’s my plan B just in case. Who knows? At some point in time I may decide that directing is more fulfilling. I want to give myself options.”

Knowing that there is something you can fall back on, a plan B, eliminates stress and the fear of failure. More options give you more chances for success and happiness.

  •  Choosing Levels of Success

A person who runs a thriving business is certainly not on the level of a Donald Trump but can that person still be called successful? Yes! Is someone who enjoys fame on Broadway as successful as a Hollywood actor who makes millions per picture? Absolutely! It is all in the mind of the person.

You don’t have to be on the same scale as that of “someone else.”  Celebrate you for what you have achieved. See yourself as a success and find contentment in what you have now.

Make it a rule to see yourself as a unique person with unique talents. No one else is you. Don’t focus on what they have or how successful they are. They should not hold the highest importance in your life. Instead, focus on the one person who should be important to you-your own self.

  •  Rethink the Idea of Nothing Less Than One Hundred Percent

If you have made it a point of honor that you can only be happy when everything goes exactly the way you want it to go, then  you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Let go of that attitude now! This way of thinking can only become a negative trap.

Find a satisfactory medium in your life so you can enjoy what is there in front of you. An all or nothing attitude is a sure way of guaranteeing you end up with nothing.

  •  Know Your Own Value

Don’t become a victim of envy. Stop thinking about what you don’t have and focus instead on what you do have at this moment. Understand that feeling good about what you do have in no way makes you complacent. You are not settling for less, you are simply enjoying the now part of your life.

Make a list of your talents and what you think is great about you. Sell yourself to you. This isn’t being vain or narcissistic, it is discovering  what your real value is. It is not only productive but will have a positive effect on your how you perceive yourself.

Reinvent yourself, make changes as you go along, but understand that you are living your life and not that of someone else. Your mind controls how you see the world around you. You become what you think you are.


  • Kristen Houghton

    Kristen Houghton

    Thrive Global

    Kristen Houghton is the award-winning author of the popular series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation.  She is also the author of nine novels, two non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, and a children’s novella. Her horror novel, Welcome to Hell, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Houghton has covered politics, news, and lifestyle issues as a contributor to the Huffington Post. Her writing portfolio includes Criminal Element Magazine, a division of Macmillan Publishing, Today, senior fiction editor at Bella Magazine, interviews and reviews for HBO documentaries, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and The Style Channel. Before becoming a full-time  author, Kristen, who holds an Ed.D. in linguistics, taught World Languages on the high school and university levels. Along with her husband, educator Alan William Hopper, she is a philanthropist for Project Literacy and Shelters With Heart, safe havens for victims of domestic abuse and their pets . mailto:  [email protected]