How to define success for yourself (no, but REALLY)

How do you define success for yourself? How do you distance yourself from family and social expectations of what you 'should' be doing? Click through for 5 questions that will help you define success on your own terms.

We’ve all seen those hand-lettered quotes floating around Pinterest, haven’t we?

“Write your own definition of success!” “Success is: [photo collage of six pack abs, checked off lists, and lattes]” or that illustration of the imagined path to success versus the reality.

If you’re anything like me – you nod at your computer screen. You think “Yes! I should write my own definition of success!”

Then we forget about it.  We go back to subconsciously believing the version of success marketed by every magazine, tv show, and movie.  And based on those standards we’re doing life wrong.

It took me yearrrrs to realize that I – like everyone else, ever – had quietly absorbed all these ideas about success.

I’d watched enough sitcoms to know that success looks like stainless steel kitchen appliances and European cars. I’d read enough women’s magazines to know success looks like a high, tight butt and a high-earning husband. I’d been an American long enough to know that success looks like a six-figure salary, 2.5 children, and good teeth.

I’d never opted into these beliefs. They seeped into me by osmosis.

But somehow, one day, a light switch flipped on in my brain. I realized that if I actually wrote my own definition of success, it’d probably be a lot easier to achieve and a lot more fulfilling once I got there.

At the risk of rhyming/making you roll your eyes: If you can’t name it, you can’t claim it. Click To Tweet

Want to know what my version of success looks like?

  • If I wanted to, I could buy my groceries at Whole Foods. (I mean, I probably won’t ever do this, but I COULD if I wanted to)
  • When I travel to a city where friends live, I stay with them because I want to see them. Not because the trip would otherwise be unaffordable
  • My home is filled with lovely, meaningful things
  • I have a closet of carefully chosen items that make me feel beautiful
  • My friends are smart, kind, inspiring humans
  • I can choose the projects and clients I take on
  • I wake up when I want to (rather than getting up to an alarm)
  • I can handle unexpected expenses like car repairs or doctor’s visits
  • I sleep 8 hours a night (and if I don’t, I can sleep in or take a nap!)
  • I can afford regular pedicures, massages, and DIY writing retreats
  • I can buy really great gifts for the people love
  • I can afford Aveda hair products and ‘real’ bras (aka: not the $12 bras from Target)
  • I can run up flights of stairs without wanting to die. I can touch my toes without straining. I can keep wearing the same size of Old Navy Rockstar jeans I always buy.

I’m sure by a lot of standards, I’m not necessarily ‘successful.’ I have a weird internet job most people don’t understand. I have an M.A. I don’t use. We rent our house. I drive a 2003 Ford Focus. 90% of my belongings come from Craigslist or Goodwill.

But you know what? I get to define success for myself and based on my definition I’m KILLING IT. Click To Tweet

When we actually, literally define what ‘success’ looks like to us – surprise! – it’s a lot easier to feel successful.

If you’re ready to literally write your own definition of success, here are some questions to help you get started.

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How to define success for yourself

How will life look + feel when you’re professionally successful?

Will you head a team of 40 people? Do you have freedom to accept only the work you’re passionate about? Is your work regularly featured in high profile places? Do you speak at events? Are you a frequently-referenced expert? Will you have tons of responsibility?

Have you built a career that covers your expenses?  Can you leave work at the office and not think about it again till Monday?

Related: 8 steps to (finally) get serious about your professional life

How will life look + feel when you’re successful in your social and personal life?

Is your inbox packed with more party invites than you can handle? Do you have 2-3 close friends who’d help you bury bodies and provide alibis? Could you walk into an event and know half the people?

Would you have a sweetheart who challenges you? Supports you? Makes you laugh? Gives you butterflies and The Blushes?

How will life look + feel when you’ve got your health and wellness figured out?

Are you (finally) sleeping well? Are you wearing a certain clothing size? Can you lift a specific amount or run a certain distance? Have you found a type of movement or exercise you enjoy? Have you finally gotten that nagging health issue under control? Can you say “Yup, I’m the healthiest version of myself right now”?

How will life look + feel when you’re financially successful?

Are you living in a different neighborhood? Is your living space bigger? Prettier? Brighter? Have you paid off a huge, specific debt? Are you earning $XXX?

Can you afford to hire a housekeeper? A bookkeeper? A nanny? Can you pay for a huge trip? A new car? Your parents’ healthcare?

How will life look + feel when you’ve mastered your emotions and your inner workings?

Are you less hung up on what other people think? Have you forgiven someone you held a grudge against? Have you had a hard conversation you were putting off? Have you started + maintained a gratitude practice or a meditation practice? Are you going to therapy and making progress? Have you made peace with your past?

It’s okay if – after careful consideration – you discover that your version of success looks a lot like a white picket fence in the suburbs, 2.5 kids, and a golden retriever.

It’s also okay if you realize that all you need to feel successful is a weekly latte, a sunny living room, and yearly trips to somewhere with water.

Here’s the probably-obvious-but-often-ignored next step: Once you know what success looks like for you,  take a few tiny, doable steps to get closer.

If success looks like waking up without an alarm, ask HR if you could switch to a more flexible schedule.

If success looks like a busier social calendar, make an active effort to start making more friends (yes, even though it’s sort of awkward).

If success looks like a healthier savings account, stop making so many regrettable purchases.

You’re smart. You get the idea.

Now I want to hear from you! What does success look like for you? Have you ever stopped to consider if your ideas about success are right for you and your life? 

P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!

photo by Yoal Desurmont  and nina linndgren // cc

17 Comments

Jen

Yes! A thousand times yes! For me, success looks like enough money to buy food I enjoy, travel as I please, buy gifts for people I love and give back to causes I believe in; enough health to run ultramarathons whenever I want; limiting my possessions to things that are functional and beautiful (to me); having a community of friends who are like family; working for/with kind, open-minded people and striving to be the best life/adventure partner I can be.

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Dessa

One of my favorite measures of success has always been not having to add up everything I put in the cart in the grocery store! Even though I’m at a place where I’m more financially stable now, I’ll never forget those years of scraping by.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Ohhh, yes. I hear ya – just buying the ‘nice’ cheese and not having to wait till it’s on sale!

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Samantha Lee

Honestly, right now all I can think is – to me, success is being creatively fulfilled each day and being my own boss (while still affording to live comfortably, travel often, and buy that new pair of shoes I want without guilt). But this is a great idea to think about. You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going!
http://www.wonderlandsam.com

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Sandra, Italy

Sarah, you just rocked my world!! And just when I was sitting down to ponder this year’s goals! *big hug*

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Colleen

Loved this post! Lots of wisdom here to ponder on for making positive changes towards where I want to go and who I want to be 🙂

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Vanessa

Yes! I am 100% behind this. So many people thought we were nuts when we moved from a big house in the country to a small flat in the city. But we are thriving with all the free museums, restaurants and experiences on our doorstep. Did I mention less to clean & tidy? Score! We don’t have a car any more, even though we could afford 2. Just not a priority. I love the fact that we can travel four times a year, eat out, buy the nice cheese, buy all the books we want. That’s life I want. We have savings, we have a pension each, what more do I need?

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Sanders

A big off the subject but where does one find a ‘real’ bra? I am still trying to figure this out as all of mine are so uncomfortable, which perhaps makes me feel unsuccessful. So i guess, success to me at this present moment is finding a bra that is comfortable!

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Sarah Von Bargen

Nordstrom has trained bra fitters! I think most high end department store lingerie department employees know how to fit bras 🙂

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Bianca B.

Yes! To me, success is having a part-time job that can guarantee me a stable income, so that I can choose whom to work with as a counselor. (Not there yet, but hustling to reach it!) Most of my friends would think I’m crazy for wanting two jobs instead of one, but I know myself. Variety is what keeps me alive, creative, and engaged. Plus, putting all my eggs in one basket would just make me afraid of losing that one freaking basket X)

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Andrew Welters

Success is being the first man to comment here, ha! But also having two happy, healthy, and goofy kids. Coparenting in a win-win-win situation with my kids, their mother, and myself. Learning to surf at 36. Weekly basketball games that not only includes my work buddies, but also my best friend of 29 years! The freedom and financial means to travel multiple times a year.

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Joy

I just wanted to say that I love this post. And I’m sharing it on my Facebook now. Thank you Sarah! <3

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