Let’s first come to a group definition of success (for the sake of this article). A quick Google search turns up a number of subjective and objective definitions, several of which are contradictory.
For example, one of the leading definitions reads,
“The attainment of popularity or profit.”
You can be very popular and attain no profits at all, and you can certainly make some money and be not all that popular.
The first Oxford Dictionary definition that came up for me is a pretty good one:
“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”
So how do we go about measuring whether or not we “accomplished our aim or purpose?” Should we keep track based on whether it generates a profit? Is the first metric we want to use financial?
For lots of financially “successful” people I know, the answer to, “How much is enough?” is always, “More.” Do we need to make millions? Just enough to buy a house? Pay for our kids to go to college? Put food on the table?
Maybe the best way to measure success is to judge how “happy” we are in accomplishing our aim or purpose. Do we feel fulfilled, content, and a sense of achievement upon reflection? Should that feeling be proportional to the size of the goal? For instance, should someone with a brand new startup that makes their first sale “feel” as successful as Zuckerberg sitting atop Facebook?
The challenge in measuring success is that success is inherently subjective.
We see the “overnight success” of many businesses that suddenly seem like they are extremely successful, even though it’s people have been working late nights and weekends for seven years.
However, we don’t all share the same success values, which makes it difficult to benchmark.
Overall, we largely believe being and feeling “successful” is a condition of setting an aim or purpose that is appropriate to your potential, working towards that potential in spite of challenge and sacrifice, and checking off pre-set metrics for (personal) success at a determined review period.
There should be elements of both objective and subjective measurement, which I’ll cover below. Two questions for you first, though, if you are considering an “aim or purpose” of your own while reading this:
If money isn’t a primary driver, it wouldn’t be wise to start playing the comparison game and looking around at what cars people are driving or what size home they are living in, would it?
If money is a primary driver, understand that it isn’t a complete condition of success. I know plenty of financially “successful” that don’t feel successful at all, much less happy about where they’re at.
I believe when this happens it’s a fundamental mismatch in what is important, which was a failure before the business/aim/purpose even started. There was no clear goal, no clear metrics, and a misunderstanding of potential.
You must bear the burden of your potential. Consider this in great detail, and ask those close to you for help if you need an outside perspective of what you’re capable of.
Here, we’re looking for closed-loop feedback measurements that have a start and end date and can be measured in a uniform way. Trying to get a faster one-mile time? Great, use a stopwatch. Yes or No – did you run faster this month compared to last month? Trying to grow your business? Great, use earnings. Yes or No – are you earning more this year than last year?
In business, we might call them Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). They include things like revenue growth, customer retention, new customers reached, market share, etc.
In health, we might consider blood pressure, biomarkers like vitamin and mineral levels, RHR, among others.
They provide a road map to get where we want to go. As an entrepreneur, you’ll have really high “highs” and really low “lows.” As an athlete you’ll have days where you feel strong, fast, and dialed in, and “off” days just as well. As a parent, you’ll have days where you feel like you make your kids proud and days where you feel like you’re failing your children.
Objective measurements allow us to keep score, in a sense, and give us something to work towards.
Here, we’re looking for fulfillment, really. Do we feel like we’re moving towards accomplishing our aim or purpose?
Subjective measurements are tricky in that we can irrationally decide we’re doing well or poorly, which can move the needle in both directions. For example, the inventor that has failed thousands of times before he or she gets it right, once.
Thomas Edison famously said (on the lightbulb), “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
You’ll never know for sure. This is a scary proposition; you could just as easily find 100,000 ways that won’t work and never succeed.
We must find ways to step off the cycle of achievement along our journey to appreciate what we’re doing, what we’re accomplishing, and how we’re changing the world. “Success,” in this sense, is then a momentary reminder to keep going, to keep fighting the good fight, because it’s worth it.
Other subjective measures of success might be a testimonial you receive from a client, a smile from a student, a hug from your child (just to say I love you), and most importantly those butterflies deep down inside your soul that make you smile walking down the street.
I believe success isn’t a destination, but a stop on the bigger pursuit of your aim or purpose.
Objectively and subjectively, it is the pursuit of setting an aim or purpose that is appropriate to your potential, working towards that potential in spite of challenge and sacrifice, and checking off KPIs at a predetermined review period.
Bear the burden of your potential, set your goals appropriate to that potential, and then get to work.
“Success”, in all its forms, is soon to follow.
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