Updated: Jan 30, 2021
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Before reading further, I challenge you to take just three minutes (tell Siri or Google to set a timer) and write your own short personal “dictionary” definition of the word success. How do you define that word?
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I found that, personally, it is not an easy word to quickly and briefly define in my own words. In order to try to find some sort of clarity and self-awareness around my personal definition of success, I forced myself to sit down with a pad of lined paper and a blue pen. I had every intent to knock this one out, no problem, and was confident I could efficiently and succinctly write that definition down. After the jumbles of words that flowed onto the page, I started to hesitate and stumble in my attempts. I found them coalescing into preconceived, acceptable sentences that ticked appropriate boxes. Once the ink really started to dry on my pad I moved on and did an online search for definitions.
What I found did not help.
The word, when looked up in different dictionaries, has a number of similar concise definitions that are, when you look at them closer, actually rather different from one another. The word connotes this immensely complex idea and philosophy that is affected by society, history, culture, and personal experiences. Here is one definition:
n. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.
n. The gaining of fame or prosperity.
the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.: "there is a thin line between success and failure".
the good or bad outcome of an undertaking.: "the good or ill success of their maritime enterprises".
After some more introspection, I discovered that I have always struggled with my own personal definition of success and the concept of being successful, especially when I tried to apply those concepts to myself.
Growing up in rural Vermont in an era when face-to-face interaction, talking on the phone, watching very limited television, and writing letters was the height of connectivity, I saw other peoples’ very refined and somewhat narrow ideas and experiences of success and I realized, at an early age, that my own idea of “success” was significantly different from people around me. I saw others’ definitions of success as being an external, measurable thing, not an internal feeling. Being successful was to accomplish commonly accepted, clearly defined goals and then moving on to the next sets of goals. This process eventually either landed you successfully at the top of whichever industry that you were pursuing - or you failed. You were, therefore, either successful or you were not - a success or a failure and nothing in between.
To clarify, this did not come from my parents. They have always been fantastically more fluid and enlightened than that. They have somehow always understood and accepted that I would never fit in to the narrow, strictly defined, societally determined structures that existed. Throughout my youth I did not recognize or understand how differently they understood success. They continue to be among my most vital advocates for living in the wide spectrum of success.
I have learned that this living within the spectrum of success is how I define success. I have had a number of different careers and incredible experiences. Choosing to live in a fluid, accepting, colorful spectrum of success has allowed me to recognize that success is not all or nothing and you are not either successful or a failure. This thinking and belief is too restrictive and limiting for my happiness.
I choose to live in this fantastic rainbow of success and continue exploring this vast spectrum that is exciting, challenging, and infinitely rewarding.