Why you must ask yourself this question and how to use your answer to make your most important life choices.
After spending his entire career working his way up the corporate ladder, 48-year-old Andy finally reached the top. But almost as soon as he reached the pinnacle, he told his wife he wanted to quit.
Worried that he was having some sort of mental health problem, she told him to go to therapy before he made any major life changes. He happily agreed to do so. When he came into my office, he explained that he’d worked his entire life while thinking that a powerful job and a big salary would make him feel successful. But now that he had everything he had thought he wanted, he realized he was wrong.
He wanted to work for a nonprofit organization that helped at-risk youth. He thought putting his skills to use helping other people would be more rewarding—and more valuable—than what he had been doing.
Andy wasn’t experiencing any mental health problems. In fact, he was probably healthier than he’d ever been. He’d settled on his own definition of success and for the first time ever, he was going to live according to his values.
The Messages You Get About Success Every Day
If you don’t define success for yourself, other people will define it for you. Much like Andy, many people spend their whole lives working toward someone else’s definition of success.
Every day you’re bombarded with messages about what success means to others: The messages your parents sent you about success might still echo in your head. Advertisements telling you that successful people drive certain cars or use certain products might convince you that you’re not good enough until you have earned the money to obtain such things. Your social-media newsfeeds are filled with articles that tell you what successful people do. And your Facebook friends are showing you how successful they believe they are.
Unless you consciously create your own definition, these messages will shape how you evaluate yourself.
The Question That Defines What Success Means To You
To gain perspective on what is really important to you, ask yourself this question:
When I’m 100 years old and I look back over my life, what would make me think my time was well spent?
Will you feel like you spent your time wisely if you earned enough money to leave your family a large inheritance? Will you be happy with your life if you helped a lot of people along the way? Will you feel fulfilled if you explored all corners of the earth?
The answer to that question will give you your definition of success. Once you know what it is, write it down. Writing it down—or typing it on your smartphone—will help clarify your definition of a “life well lived.” Keep that definition with you, because there will be times you’ll want to refer back to it.
It’s easier to make tough decisions when you have a clear definition of success. Tempted to take a new job with longer hours? See how that fits with your definition. Considering a move to a new city? See if it aligns with your definition.
One of the 13 things mentally strong people don’t do is resent other people’s success. But when you don’t know your personal definition of success, it’s harder to avoid feelings of envy and resentment.
Don’t let other people’s lifestyles blur your definition of success. Perhaps your neighbor has a beautiful new car. Or a Facebook friend has lots of time to travel. It’s easy to think these people have a better life than you do.
Whenever you notice a twinge of resentment, read over your definition of success. Remind yourself that everyone has a unique journey, and that wishing your life were like someone else’s is like comparing apples and oranges.
Besides, every minute you spend resenting someone who seems to “have it all,” is another minute you aren’t working on your own goals. Keep your eyes on your own definition of success and you’ll fill your time with the things that matter most to you.