Defining Success, Part 2.  In Part 1, we talked about how I came to some key realizations about the true nature of success.

All and all, I think “success” boils down to three key points:

1. Being able to spend time doing meaningful things.

2. Living adventurously: constantly undertaking interesting and exciting tasks.

3. Being a positive influence on others.

At this point, I think it’s easy to say “isn’t this just a question of semantics?  Who cares what you say ‘success is’, especially if it’s so broadly defined in the first place?”

Actually, I think that success is probably best first understood as a broad definition, as opposed to narrowly.  Trying to define success in terms of niche interests is meaningless, unless you happen to share that same interest.  Would you find my advice helpful if you were a teacher who liked their job, and I told you the best way to be successful was to quit your job and go start a business?  And even if you did share that same interest, defining holistic life success purely as success in one category is equally meaningless, and cunningly misleading.  Even if you did want to start a business, would you really be naive as to think that starting a business would be the only thing that would–or could–make you feel satisfied?

So if anything, the more interesting question is: how can success be defined in a way that will apply to everyone?

And I think that’s what I’ve been able to do.  And I think these 3 principles outline it perfectly:

Why are these 3 things the cornerstones of success?

Because they’re traits that I’ve seen countless times over the successful people I’ve met and known in my life.

1. Being able to spend time doing meaningful things.

I think back to my grandmother, who was a teacher at John Dickinson High School in Wilmington, Delaware for about 20 years.   I’ve heard countless stories from family friends and relatives about her distinguished career at Dickinson: she would go out of her way to show how much she cared about her students.  This included visiting and supporting students who were in trouble with the law and were either in juvenile hall…students forgotten about by everyone else.  When she retired in the 1980s, the school threw one of its largest retirement parties for her.  At her funeral in 2009, students of hers from years ago came to remember their teacher, “Mrs. Thornton”, who had done so much for them 40 or 50 years ago.

I mention this story to emphasize the broad and encompassing nature of “spending time doing meaningful things”.  Many who write about personal development seem to suggest that the way to spend one’s time doing meaningful things is rather binary in nature: quit your job and work for yourself.

While that’s something I would personally find rewarding, I strongly object to the narrow interpretation of this meaning.  And I think my grandmother’s story shows why that’s so.

I doubt my grandmother made a tremendous amount of money teaching at Dickinson…and I doubt she was ever compensated for the extra effort she put in.  But she considered her life to have been a success and a joy.  She spent her time doing things she found meaningful.

2. Living adventurously: constantly undertaking interesting and exciting tasks.

In reflection, I realize that the most fun part of my life was living in China and learning Chinese.  I think that’s because we crave adventure at our cores, even if we think of ourselves as “risk-adverse”.  I think back to my mother, who I persuaded to join me in China in 2010 for a couple weeks.  Though she was as worried as hell before going out there (and was even more uncertain about making the trip), two years later, she considers it to be one of her most adventurous and exciting experiences.

Many entrepreneurs I know haven’t been overly “successful” in terms of money.  In fact, studies tend to show that entrepreneurs as a category make about the same as employees of similar backgrounds and skill sets.  If you make an adjustment for risk (you made the same about of $, but took on 10x as much risk), you realize that entrepreneurs actually make way less.  I think entrepreneurs, therefore, simply enjoy the challenge of undertaking interesting and exciting tasks, even though they realize they’re unlikely to “make bank” in the long run.

 3. Being a positive influence on others.

How is it that so many consider one of the most important elements of their success in life their ability to raise their children into mature adults?  Biology’s got something to do with it, but think about it broadly: it’s a very real, very important opportunity for us to be a positive influence on someone else.

Thinking back to the example of my grandmother: I’m sure she relished the idea of being a positive influence on so many people.  Thinking into my own life: I love the feeling of writing these articles, with the idea that they can be a monumental help to someone who needs it.  Haven’t you felt happiest when you’re in a position to make things better for others?


What’s not important–though many self-help gurus will try to charge you $100 to tell you that it is–is something like starting one’s own business, mindlessly pursuing “make $1k per day” schemes, or figuring out how to avoid having to work.  What it really means is living one’s life in a way that is spent doing meaningful and interesting things, and that make the world and other people better.   If you’re convinced that this is way to live, I recommend reading some more of my articles, where I’ve written extensively about empowering oneself to live a happy and successful life:

Related Articles:

The Main Idea

Why you should only spend your time the way you want

Monetize your Passion

The Productivity Mindset



Photo Credit: By C m handler (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons