THE BLOG
03/18/2013 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2013

'Success' Is Such an Elusive Word

"Success" is a very elusive word, simply because it means many different things to different people. Believe it or not, I've met some of the most successful and high achievers you could imagine in my psychology practice who actually consider themselves "failures" because they've set certain -- often lofty -- personal goals that weren't met. Think about the most recent presidential campaign. Would you consider Mitt Romney a success or a failure? Some would focus on the fact that he lost the race, without acknowledging the many successes he's had in his life and career. I can't tell you how he views himself, but can only hope he doesn't make this all-too-common overgeneralization.

Thus, the definition of success is truly in "the eye of the beholder." What for one person constitutes having achieved everything they've ever wanted might be seem like a gross underachievement to someone else. One way of defining success might be to set specific and realistic goals and then try your best to reach them. Then make sure you confine the labels of success and failure to the goals themselves, never to you as a person! Of course, there's no way to know if you've achieved your goals unless you've clearly defined them in the first place. So that's job one. It's also possible that your personal goals correspond to various eras of your life, from infancy to adulthood. This is a concept I elaborate on in my book Stage Climbing: The Shortest Path to Your Highest Potential. Here are some examples of how some people define success, meant to help you shed some light on what your definition of success might be.

Some might consider their life successful if they've created an arrangement in which everything is provided for them and with no demands or challenges to worry about. However, a pampered and carefree life might feel like the ultimate success to some, but a devastating admission of inadequacy for others. Success could also be defined as a life without any rules or inhibitions, where a person gets whatever he wants whenever he wants it. For instance, a criminal probably considers himself successful to the degree that he gets away with his crimes. These examples merely illustrate the idea that success can mean very different things to different people.

Individuals who are "rule followers" might consider themselves successful when they are able to stay within certain black-and-white boundaries, without drawing any negative attention to themselves. For them, conforming and behaving as expected and defined by another person, group, political or religious affiliation often means they've they achieved success. Some consider themselves successful when they have achieved affirmation, acceptance, approval, fame, and/or recognition (e.g., winning an award) from others.

For many in our society, success is a result of skillfully keeping roles and relationships in balance and free of conflict, earning a certain amount of money and meeting their obligations. For some, success is the satisfaction obtained when they are able to do what they really want to be doing, and which provides the most fulfillment. A very lucrative but mundane career may not feel as successful as having a job that inspires them by tapping their creativity in an area they're passionate about.

Finally, some feel truly successful only when they have made a desired impact on someone or something greater than themselves. This happens when you see others benefit from the help and support you've sent their way. For example, even some of the most financially successful businesspeople define success by the impact they've had on others, such as employees, customers/clients, or the larger world.

So which of these markers best describes how you define success in your life? Contemplating this question is a great jumping-off point for setting goals that are in line with your mission and desires. Just remember to assess your degree of achievement against yourself and no one else. In other words, remember that the only valid comparison is between where you are now and where you potentially could be -- never between you and someone else. If you feel that you're not where you'd like to be, hopefully the descriptions above can help you visualize what success might look like for you in the coming months, years, or even ultimately. Then do whatever feels right for you to achieve it.

For more by Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., click here.

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