Success is subjective — don’t let others define yours.

A popular search engine (that almost rhymes with ‘poodle’) returns over 1.2 billion results for the term ‘success’. It continues to be a much talked and written about construct and one which I increasingly see being defined in terms more likely to hamper rather than help its attainment. Terms that seem to align ‘success’ largely with ‘more’- more money, more titles, more fame, more stuff, more career ‘progression’ (whatever that is).

Some of these limiting views are even coming out of enlightened areas such as positive psychology — a discipline I hold in high regard — so I now feel compelled to add my two cents worth to the discussion. But I thought rather than entering into an existential discourse about what science and spirituality, or this-or-that author have said about it, I would attempt to come up with a mnemonic that encapsulates how I see it.

Self-awareness. Any self-improvement and self-management starts with a greater awareness of the self. We need to understand what our bodies and thoughts are telling us, so that we can make minute alterations of course to stay on track to achieve what we wish to achieve (see “Clarity of purpose” below), as well as to fully experience and enjoy the journey.

Unconditionally accept and love yourself — with love comes respect, and with respect comes care — we all know too many people who have ‘achieved’ things at great expense to themselves and often those around them. Self-care is definitely not selfish! Understand that ‘success’ is unlimited in its variety — successes can be large or small, physical, emotional or spiritual; beware of thinking that success only comes with the attainment of long-term-goal X or with the purchase of item Y.

Clarity of purpose. Purpose transcends physical goals; it is the stuff that gives direction, informs decisions, buffers us against hardship, energises and drives us sustainably and lends meaning to what we do.

Chocolate. Without trying to be fatuous, I couldn’t think of anything more politically-correct that embodies an almost universal hedonism. Yes, it’s ok to actually enjoy some things for the simple, sensual pleasure they bring us. ‘Suffering for one’s art’ and making sacrifices are overrated if they are done at the exclusion of living — retiring to a rocking chair with a safety-deposit box full of gold-plated regrets is my antithesis of success.

Experience as many of the spices from the cupboard of life as you can. The more we experience the greater our frame of reference from which we can interpret and make sense of the world around us. Allied to this is emotional equilibrium — experiencing the full range of emotions, appropriately, without getting overly stuck in any one.

Servant leadership — of others and of oneself. The need to make a positive difference in the lives of others, to serve rather than to extract, is a ubiquitous concept spanning belief systems. It may seem a bit judgemental or even pious to impose such weight into this definition of success, but the well-documented personal and societal benefits that emerge from cultivating humility and conscious giving are too great to ignore. Besides, it’s my mnemonic, so it stays!

Smile. Adopt a positive attitude. Just as thoughts influence our words and actions, the opposite is also true — we can make the world a better place simply by injecting random acts of friendliness into it. And on balance, surely nurturing optimism — which is our default setting — has to be better than succumbing to pessimism?

You may notice that most of the elements are centred on the self — that’s because there can be fewer more subjective constructs than ‘success’. We are successful if we believe and feel we are. So, beware of externalising success as many elements of society will have us do — societal views and norms are constantly changing; they are also often geared towards someone else’s goals or beliefs — not necessarily yours.

Originally published at