As of my writing this, there are 3,290,000,000 Google search results for the query “How to be successful.” Yes, that’s over 3 billion. It’s a question at the forefront of our collective consciousness, one that spawns millions of dollars of sales in self-help books. To exist in America is to always feel a bit connected to the narrative of the American dream. We invented the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” to speak to our obsession with success and outdoing one another. In the internet era, visual demonstrations of success have taken on a new meaning. While for decades or centuries perhaps only those attending your family’s wedding would see an intentional display of success (see also the Polish wedding money dance), nowadays our success can be displayed and consumed by just about anyone with a screen. Surrounded by this messaging, it can feel almost impossible to define success for yourself. 

I prefer to take a more macro perspective on the topic of success (and, to be honest, just about everything). What does that mean? As a macro-oriented person, I zoom out to ask life questions, so bear with me as this post will come at success from that perspective. Just how far are we going to zoom out? Pretty far out, dude. Let’s return back to our origins as homo sapiens. What did it mean to our success as a species? Firstly, success at this time was hardly the individualistic notion we have of it today. There was no Forbes 30 under 30, it was really just “how the fuck are we going to survive?” Success meant finding ample food, a place to sleep well, shelter from animals and other predators, procreation itself. It’s quite a different picture from the one we have today (though, with coronavirus panic all around, it may feel a bit survival-oriented).

WTF is success?   

How have things changed since then and why?! So much of who we are has been shaped by those around us. We often forget just how much we are a byproduct of our circumstances and environment. The marketing around us, the programming on television, the algorithm-fed internet content (already skewed to our previous preferences), and, the big one, our parents or guardians. It’s tough to delineate between where we begin as individuals and what is us in the greater fabric of the macro. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can make life seem less complicated and overwhelming. Though we are all unique individuals, we are also all living the same life striving for the feelings of basic success. And, unless you’re meditating on a mountain or living outside of society, you might be caught yearning for more once said success is achieved. Most commonly in America, success looks like accruing, spending, and generally displaying wealth. Yes, we are generalizing intentionally here. Following and in conjunction with wealth, mainstream success is also often defined by accolades (that coveted Forbes 30 Under 30) and awards, how “popular” you are, your follower count on Instagram, and other such measured, hierarchical notions. 

How to define success for yourself. 

Success can be defined by ascertaining a state or landmark in life, be it financial, married to the “right” person, meeting some physical ideal, emotional wellness, materialistic, etc. Luckily, you can and should define it for yourself. One of my favorite definitions of success is finding one’s aim of purpose. To succeed not only means to gain profits or popularity, but more importantly it means to accomplish one’s purpose.

Create your own definition of success through alignment with purpose.

So here’s an idea. When defining success and setting goals, let’s take two steps. Firstly, put your life in perspective. Success is relative, and to succeed today looks different than what success looked like 20, 50, 100 years ago. It’s also completely relative to your culture and upbringing. Take some time to define success on your OWN relative terms, not those of your parents, culture, or peers. Step two: why not combine various elements of success in a way that feels great and purposeful for you? Maybe this means you want to be surrounded by a certain type of people. For example, to succeed means being surrounded by people who genuinely love and care for us and vise versa. Maybe it’s having enough “wealth” to live in your definition of comfort, with a roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your back – without struggle. Maybe it’s to simply have purpose.

A few questions to ask yourself (and potentially journal about) to help guide you to your own sense of purpose and ultimately, create a unique definition of success.

  • Could success mean having fulfilling relationships, the freedom to contemplate one’s self and life in general, the ability to appreciate nature? Freely think about what it means to you.
  • In light of our current situation with Covid-19, what does success mean now? What about for our health?
  • Ask yourself the uncomfortable questions: what do you really value? When ‘normalcy’ is stripped away, what do you need most? Allow yourself to ponder your values, motivators, and even your fears (you may notice a lot of common threads here). If you’re stuck, you can simply ask yourself what you don’t want, what you don’t value, how you wouldn’t define success…

In closing, I hope that as you sit with yourself, you take these questions seriously. They have the power to help you and all of us, collectively, shape a healthier, happier humanity. Perhaps you will walk away with a definition of success based on health and relationships, compassion for one another and our earth. If we all viewed life this way, imagine what our world could look like?