This article is the first in a 2-part series on Defining Success.  This article discusses how I figured out that 1.) defining success in a tangible, specific way is very important, 2.) my old definition of success was causing me huge problems.

What defines success?

It’s a bit difficult to write about achieving success and happiness without really clarifying what success is.  At first, I considered this issue to be irrelevant and trivial, and more of a discussion of semantics than anything else.  The more I thought about it, I came to a couple important conclusions:

  1. A poor definition of success causes one to make misguided decisions that make happiness more difficult.
  2. A poor definition of success likely ensures failure.

I realized that having a solid, workable definition of success was actually a prerequisite to actually attaining success, rather than simply an argument over semantics.  I realized this–and discovered the true definition of success–because my old definition of success almost completely burned me out, and nearly destroyed some of the personal relationships that I hold most dear.

How I discovered the true definition of success

As a beginning graduate student in August of 2011, I started school with some very lofty thoughts.  I wanted to succeed in each of the following:

  • Obtaining excellent grades in my Masters of Taxation program.
  • Studying for the LSAT (the law school entrance exam), and getting into one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools.  I intended to attend law school after my Masters program concluded.
  • Studying for the GRE (another graduate school entrance exam) to have the option of attending a school to receive a Masters in International Relations.

The reason I pursued these goals is because of the way I saw success: I thought of success mostly in terms of  achievement: that is, the act of accomplishing a difficult goal at all costs.  I reasoned: if I can do these things, I can gain professional qualifications, gain knowledge in fields I found interesting, and eventually have them all come together in a way that would allow me to start a business, and make tons of money.  In my definition of success, I really did not consider other attributes, such as personal sanity and relationships with others.  I figured those things were a given and would come naturally: as long as I could achieve these aforementioned goals, all would be well.

There was a cardinal problem with these three goals: they all had to happen at the same time: the beginning few months of my Masters program.  The Masters program was ongoing; the GRE was in mid-September; the LSAT was on October 1.  Given that I had excel at all of these things simultaneously, I was in for a rough schedule.

And so it began: I took my classes, and studied for my 2 tests.  After a month or so of this, I noticed something: I felt terrible.  I would wake up daily dreading the day.  I got upset at my homework assignments, and was exasperated at the effort they took.  I would become riled when I took a practice LSAT or GRE and did poorly (which, given my high standards, was essentially all of them).

I was in a bad mood essentially all of the time.  My girlfriend even had trouble putting up with me, as my bad mood and self-loathing rubbed off on her.  I kept trying to convince her: “all will be well after these tests; just let me do this and it will be fine”.

Finally the GRE and LSAT rolled around.  I took both of them, and waited weeks to get the scores back.  When I opened the envelopes, what I saw made my blood boil: I had only done average on each of the exams.  There went my thoughts of a few years at Yale studying law or international relations.  I had stretched myself so thin that I was not able to devote the proper time and care to any of my goals.  As such, my grades in my Masters program, and my marks on the LSAT and GRE were all only average.  

I had wasted all of this time and effort, and imparted immense stress on those who cared about me to only do okay.  I hadn’t accomplished anything I wanted to, and flatly felt like a failure.

As I thought about it (and it took me months after this strenuous period in my life to be able to put this into words), I realized that my definition and standards of success had screwed me over.  That was it.  It was because I thought that the only thing that’d matter was accomplishing these few tasks, and that it would all work out in the end.

As much of a shock as this experience was for me, I’d imagine it’s rather common; and I’ve seen it in many of my friends and acquaintances: pursuing multiple advanced-level degrees while working 40+ hours, doing work for the sake of work, etc.

At this point, it would be easy to turn the conversation into some commonly-said statement of caution like: “remember: money and attainment aren’t the only things in life that matter!  Success is being happy with family, friends, and your job, etc.”  But I think that definition is no good either: it misses the overarching point.

Then what is success?

What I realized after thinking about it more was that my pursuit of the Masters program and the LSAT and GRE at the same time was this: I almost defined success properly, and in fact likely got closer than many people would.  But I missed in a crucial enough way to cause problems for myself.  The way I should have seen it was to think of things like law school as something that would be present if I were otherwise living my life in a successful manner, rather than things that, in of themselves, define and connote success.

I should have taken a broader overarching definition of success; by doing that, I would have known that pursuing so many things at once (and in my case, needlessly seeking additional academic credentials) was a waste of time.

Success, therefore, is a life filled with and enabled by exactly 3 key traits:

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.

In my next article, I’ll discuss these traits in more detail, and how my change in perspective to these 3 traits has helped me become more successful and much happier.

Photo Credit: By Tom Walsh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Coco J. Ginger

    always such good advice RC :) Thanks for sharing it with us.