We have become just a tiny bit obsessed with attaining success. Shows like "Shark Tank" and "The Bachelor" attempt to create everything from successful businesses to successful love lives. Sheryl Sandberg tells us how we should "lean in" to attain business success, and the media and commentators have gone crazy debating whether women (or men) can or can't "have it all."
But what is success?
Is success a corner office, a lucrative career and a house that the neighbors envy? Does success come in the form of love, marriage and 2.3 children? Is success popularity, sex appeal, and the admiration of peers? Or is success something different, something more obscure?
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines success as "a favorable or desired outcome," which is often times created based on external measurements. We look to external examples of success -- neighbors, friends, colleagues, mentors, celebrities, business tycoons, parents, family members, even strangers on the street -- to tell us what a favorable or desired outcome would be. As a writer and blogger, I look to Anne Lamott and Glennon Doyle Melton as measures of success. As a parent, I look to the mom who managed to stop yelling for a year as an example of parenting success. As a woman, I look to the girl next to me at the gym running eight-minute miles or the celebrities who grace the pages of my US Weekly magazine wearing itsy-bitsy bikinis and flaunting flat abs, clear skin and well-coifed hair. As a wife, I look to the easy-going, sexy, supportive partner who dotes on her husband with nary an objection or complaint. As an introvert-but-wanna-be-extrovert, I look to the popular queen bees chatting with their troop of minions outside the playground each day. All of these people are the epitome of favorable outcomes.
And it would be hard enough to measure success against these external models in their specific areas of "expertise" alone, but to make matters worse, I mentally combine each of these images of success to create a composite idealized persona -- a beautiful, physically fit, best-selling author who never yells at her kids, has tons of friends and never snaps at her husband.
In comparison to this fictional, modern day Barbie, I am undoubtedly a fumbling failure. My career is filled with almosts and close calls, but the prize is always just out of reach. I can't make it more than a couple of days without yelling at my kids, much less a whole year. I can barely run a couple miles at a modest pace; I have a perpetual 3-month post-babies belly bump, laugh lines outline occasional acne, my hair is usually in a ponytail or under a hat to conceal the fact that I've gone a few days without washing it and as much as I am wildly in love with my husband, I am shamefully outspoken and dramatic, often misplacing my stress and frustrations on him.
Given the unattainability of success as measured by this composite ideal, many suggest a more personal standard of success. As Maya Angelou says, "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it."
While this definition does seem more relaxed than the unattainable success of a fictional, flawless person, it is still a little tricky. You see, although I like myself most days, like what I do most days, and like how I do it most days, there are plenty of times when, quite frankly, I don't find myself all that likeable, and I don't like what I do nor how I do it. There are parts of every job that we just don't like. When I worked as an associate at a large law firm, corporate deal-making wasn't nearly as glamorous as I would have liked when I was poring over loan documents or employment agreements. The freelance work I do now consists of writing a fair amount of marketing materials for law firms and, while I love writing and continue to find "the law" fascinating, writing about slip and fall accidents can get to be a bit monotonous at times and I don't always like it. A teacher might love shaping young people, but not like filling out report cards. A photographer might love taking pictures, but not like the editing process. A nurse might love the patients, but not like completing charts.
As a parent, I certainly don't like wiping snotty noses, supervising homework, giving time-outs or cleaning crayon off the ceiling, nor do I always like how I parent (I mentioned the yelling, right?). And let's be honest, days filled with excessive snot wiping and yelling can make it pretty difficult to like oneself.
There is value in looking to external examples of success as inspirational mentors and personal motivators, paradigms of those characteristics and accomplishments that matter to us, propelling us to do better and be better, just like there is value in eliminating the extrinsic measures of success -- a big house, fancy cars, popularity, a growing bank account, a corner office and rock hard abs -- in favor of intrinsic measures of success -- personal satisfaction, inner peace, purposeful existence, solid relationships, an optimistic outlook and a resilient character.
But all of these measures -- intrinsic and extrinsic alike -- are ever-changing, undefinable or fleeting. So if we measure success by these standards, by the attainment of "favorable or desired outcomes," success will forever be slipping through our fingers.
Perhaps the measures of success aren't the problem; it's our definition of success that is the problem. Success isn't so much the attainment of a "desired outcome or result," as Merriam-Webster's dictionary tells us, just like success does not come from "having it all" (a loaded and lethal phrase, in and of itself).
Success is not a victory or result, but a perpetual state of mind. It is learning from external paradigms of accomplishment while listening to a compassionate inner voice. It is the endless pursuit of personal betterment balanced with a comfortable appreciation of the status quo. Success is the aspiration to be the best version of self that we can be while praising myself for seemingly minor victories. It is ambitious motivation quieted by generosity of spirit and radical empathy.
By those definitions, success moves beyond something that we strive to attain and becomes something that we can live every day.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author's website.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.