31 definitions of success
August 17, 2020

31 definitions of success

by Brian de Haaff

Last updated: February 2024

Have you ever been asked to define success in an interview? It is a simple question — easy enough to answer given the context of the situation. So you rattle off an answer about working for a prestigious company. Or achieving metrics related to your industry. Hopefully your response is not entirely hackneyed and is rooted in real meaning for you. But the dynamic of the interview and who it is with might lead you to point to specific business objectives, rather than your own truth.

Success has very little to do with external factors — you need a personal definition that is tied to your values.

It is hard to ignore the predefined notions of success that get pushed at us. The bigger title, the better office, the luxury car. You know that success goes deeper than those external markers. Big purchases and accolades are not the source of sustainable happiness.

Let me pause for a moment to acknowledge the following. I am not suggesting that money does not matter. Or that many do not really need it right now. Millions of people are just trying to survive and do not have the energy or time to worry about what long-term success means to them.

The pandemic has brought hardship for many, including job loss and financial impact — more than 20 million Americans are out of work. It can be difficult to see beyond the upsetting realities we are facing right now. But I have hope for the future. Now is the time to give back if you can. We have a responsibility to support individuals in need and local communities.

And if you are fortunate to be well and in a stable position, I do think that it is important to look up. It is too easy to be consumed by the negativity and loss that seems to permeate every day. In the spirit of a positive look forward, I asked people on LinkedIn to share their personal definitions of success. "Success means to move ever closer to one's values." "Fulfill my purpose on this earth." "Enjoy what I do and leave the company in a better state than how I found it." These are just a few of the more than 30 responses I received.

What struck me is that most people's definition is rooted in both the professional and the personal. I have long argued that work is personal and that the idea of work/life balance is a myth. Time slicing is what we do and harmony is what matters more. So we all need to find a definition that feels meaningful in any context — even as our circumstances change.

Success to me is realizing my full potential, helping others be their best, and being proud of my efforts.

My definition has not changed much over time. It is based on my core values and it keeps me deeply connected to my purpose. If you are intrinsically motivated as well, you will find the moments that bring real joy have very little to do with superficial markers. Tune into those moments to understand what lasting success means to you.

Here is an exercise that will help you determine your own definition of success:

Identify your core values

List everything that you value. My list includes everything from adventure to quality time with my family. You do not need to be overly choosy at the start. Once you have a long list, circle any themes that emerge. Then edit down to the top three to five core values that you would never compromise on.

Imagine the future

When you think ahead 10 or 20 years, what do you see for your life? Who are you with? How are you spending your time? These future daydreams — focused on relationships and community — help reveal what success looks like over the long-term.

Craft a definition

Thinking about that future you see and the values you hold, it is time to capture the essence of success for yourself. Distill it down to a one- to two-sentence definition. This forces you to focus on what matters most. If your sentence feels quite bold or ambitious, that is good. You have something to strive towards.

Act on it

Bring that definition to your day-to-day actions. If one of your core values is transparency, for example, you will not make decisions without explaining the "why." You will give and ask for honest feedback. You will take accountability. This process of linking your values to real-world responses takes the theoretical and makes it concrete.

Your personal definition of success should inspire you — today and 10 years from now.

At the outset, this exercise may seem simplistic. But it requires self-awareness and skill to determine a personal definition that keeps you grounded — no matter the challenge in front of you.

Notice when you feel most aligned with your definition. My experience tells me that when I am in sync with my own, I feel an enormous amount of pride and gratitude.

What is your definition of success?

Your team is begging for a better way to work. Start a free 30-day trial.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

Follow Aha!

Follow Brian

Related articles

The Best Cover Letters That CEOs Love to Read
April 13, 2017
The Best Cover Letters That CEOs Love to Read

A well-crafted cover letter is a great way to get noticed. Find out what to include in your cover letter to catch the attention of a CEO.

New Marketing Managers — Do These 8 Things in the First 30 Days
January 28, 2019
New Marketing Managers — Do These 8 Things in the First 30 Days

Are you a new marketing manager? Check out these suggestions from eight marketing experts on how to show your true value in your first 30 days.