Success is one of those things we generally think we know what it means and behave as if everyone defines it pretty much the same way. Except we don’t. We acknowledge this pretty quickly in terms of where different people set their performance bars, but there’s a lot more to success definition than moving an outcomes bar up and down some arbitrary, society-defined metric.
This is an important consideration for not just athletic achievement, but also career and life-wide achievement. We do this naturally when we encounter transitional periods like moving out of our parents’ house (the first time), when we marry, when we become parents or when we have a mid-life crisis and realize that what we’re doing isn’t what we really want to do anymore. What if we were to re-exemplify what success means to us deliberately?
Sounds worthwhile. But how do we do it in a way that’s advantageous?
When thinking about what makes one definition of success healthier than another, we can evaluate emotional response. What do we feel when we think about success? Is it anxiety or excitement? If we feel anxiety or even fear, that could be a sign to revisit what we think success means.
“Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.“―Yoda to Anakin Skywalker
Let’s say, hypothetically, that we notice some icky anxiety when conducting the emotional response test. What then? How do we figure out what needs changing in our success definition?
In giving this some thought, a positive success definition is rational, achievable, a stretch, and of interest to us. Let’s examine how to test for each of these things in our own success definitions.
Testing rationality. A belief that lacks rationality is akin to throwing away your power over your self-concept. You allow your satisfaction to hinge on what someone else does or seems to think. Believe you me that someone else doesn’t have your best interests at heart– they have their best interests. Be your own best advocate. How? Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) is a sort of cognitive therapy model that proposes our emotional responses aren’t direct results of what other people say or do, but rather a result of the beliefs we have about the situation. REBT identifies the Three Major Musts that are most problematic- (1) I must do well and win approval of others, (2) other people must do the right thing, and (3) life must be easy and fair. Follow the links to get more details about REBT and the Three Major Musts. Do any of these musts underlie your definition of what is successful? If so, you’ve just identified one area that you can address to make your success definition healthier.
Stretching ourselves. Success should require growth. How can it be success if it’s just easy? That’s not success, that’s just lame. In fact, pushing ourselves is not only the path to improvement but it’s inherently emotionally rewarding. Who hasn’t heard of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow? Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Ask yourself if your definition of success is a stretch for you. Even if you’re already successful, keep raising that bar! Keep aspiring to flow.
Testing achievability. Stretch, but don’t raise the bar so high it’s not achievable ever. I mean, go ahead and aim sky high with those long term goals, but give yourself a chance to find small successes in the meantime. A common scenario when achievability becomes an issue is when we experience changing life circumstances and priorities. For example, once I started a family and began working full-time again, my definition of my success as an athlete changed quite a bit. Actually success in general began to hinge a lot less on winning races and a lot more on doing great work and being present and involved parent. There are lots of events through a normal lifetime that we have to shed our old definitions of success because they aren’t relevant to our lives anymore. Let’s really ask ourselves the hard question of whether our definition can realistically happen– are we able and willing to put in the work it will take considering our broader expectations? If the answer is a resounding no, then time to rework that definition.
Testing for interest. Sometimes we adopt a success definition dictated to us by our environment- whether that’s our parents, teachers or broader social context- that, once inspected more closely, doesn’t really excite us. For example, it’s commonly held that higher level positions accompanied by higher salaries are clear markers of success. However, I’m not personally motivated by title or salary. Sometimes I almost wish I was or wonder why it isn’t so, but the fact remains that those two things aren’t aspirational drivers for me. Because of this, if I used a success definition based on those things, it wouldn’t be as helpful as a definition that aligns more closely with my personal values and interests. What are your personal values and interests? Does your success vision align with those? Or have you adopted someone else’s vision as your own?
Your definition of success should be defined by you. Though it is inevitable that parents, peers and society will influence your definition of success, it imperative that your definition be crafted based on your unique experiences, perspective and preferences. I think that for most people this requires periods of introspection and actively challenging beliefs about our self and our life that are not our own. — Akash Mittal.
The Act of Success Redefinition. So that was the diagnosis part of success definition. Let’s say we discover the time is right to redefine success for ourselves. What then? How do we go about redefining success in a meaningful way for ourselves? Here are some thoughts for a Reader’s Digest version for how to proceed.
“To set your personal definition of success, you will need to identify one or more “anchoring points” — The Bridgespan Group
Strategic anchoring of your success image. It makes perfect sense to compare ourselves to role models that we grow up with or that surround us, because these are really handy examples. Often these are role models that do certain things well that we aspire to emulate. Sometimes, though, there are aspects of that role model’s behavior that hold us back. How so? We might console ourselves for falling short of our ideals by comparing ourselves saying, “well at least I’m better than ______ in that situation.” Is this helpful?
Anchor to values. Strategic anchoring is more than picking a role model from our limited pallet of options. It’s about choosing your comparison points in a way that optimizes your chance of a desirable outcome. When you anchor to a succint set of non-negotiable values, you’re better off. Articulate those values, then define your success based on those values.
Anchor, tweak and test. Tweak and test. Iterate until you’ve got what works and then revisit and iterate again soon. Build in feedback loops that show you how you’re doing. Feedback loops are intermediary self-reflection checks on how we’re doing against our standard of success. If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s a good idea to weight yourself every now and then so you know whether your decisions leading you towards your success. Seek trends in the data without fixating on specific data points.
All rising to great places is by a winding stair. — Francis Bacon
Why your success definition matters. Isn’t this all just a bunch of head games? What difference do thoughts have on actual physical performance? Here’s a not-so-secret secret. Mind-body is a false dichotomy. They are interconnected in ways that can’t be severed. Even so, there are many things in our existence that are treated as if they are not related and it is these errors that cause problems. By problems, I mean unintended consequences that are often not seen for what they are but as problems the world has unfairly beset upon us. What you think does matter in a very physical way.
We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. — Albert Einstein.
If you’re ready to grow, it’s time for you to redefine success. Now get to work!