What is Success?

by | Apr 30, 2020


A previous IFOD, How Will You Measure Your Life, discussed the importance of determining your life’s purpose. Without direction and purpose, life can meander or go off course. A key aspect of establishing purpose is defining success. Without a personal definition of success, we may be more susceptible to the siren song of society’s primary definitions of success which usually relate to wealth, material items, status, and power. Case in point is the definition of success from the Merriam-Webster dictionarya favorable or desired outcome also: the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence. I don’t think that achieving wealth, favor, or eminence is the goal of most people who have really contemplated their lives.

Much better definitions exist and below I share some of my favorites. Reading and pondering them has helped me hone my own personal view of what success means to me.


One of my favorite success definitions I discussed when I was on Take the Long View Podcast a few months ago:

You have achieved success when you have enough control over your life that you can organize your day around a nap.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a five-tier model of human needs provides insight into goals and success. Success can be defined as moving up the pyramid and having our needs fulfilled:

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid

Personal circumstances may dictate that success is merely striving to having one’s basic needs met. If personal circumstances allow it, striving for self-actualization is a worthy goal as it involves becoming the best version of yourself.

Earl Nightingale

Earl Nightingale was a popular radio host and expert on happiness and success. His definition is great:

Success is really nothing more than the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. This means that any person who knows what they are doing and where they are going is a success. Any person with a goal towards which they are working is a successful person.

Warren Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting is Saturday, May 2nd, and will be broadcast live. You can live stream it here beginning at 4 pm EST. It’s always nice to hear from the Oracle of Omaha and his wisdom will be especially appreciated during the current crisis. Here’s how he says he measures success:

I measure success by how many people love me.

Jen Gotch

Jen Gotch is an entrepreneur, author, and Chief Creative Officer of Ban.do. I love her definition of success:

If I was really going to be introspect about what success means I think it’s me approving of me. Which feels like it’s going to be a lifelong thing. I’m getting closer.

David Brooks

Author and NY Times columnist David Brooks posits that we often have the wrong focus when defining success. We often focus on what he calls “resume virtues” in defining success. Resume virtues are accomplishments you could put on your resume and usually link to career success. He views this as misguided.

Instead, we should define success as building “eulogy virtues.” These are accomplishments and attributes that are lauded at your death — things like volunteer work and helping others.

David Brooks’s TED talk on resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues: TED Talk

John Wooden

John Wooden is considered one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. The UCLA Bruins won 10 national titles under his direction, including an astonishing seven in a row. He defines success as:

Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.

And he views winning is not the same as succeeding. You can fail to succeed even if you win, and succeed while you lose.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was a man of many quotes and great insight. Here’s how he defined success:

Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

Calvin Coolidge

Winston Churchill’s definition above is similar to what Calvin Coolidge said about persistence:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Arguably, success means practicing persistence and not letting failures derail us from our purpose.

Maya Angelou

Poet Maya Angelou defines success similar to Jen Gortch:

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

Bessie Anderson Stanley

Poet Bessie Anderson Stanley wrote this beautiful poem in 1904 that is the best definition of success I’ve read:


He has achieved success
who has lived well,
laughed often, and loved much;

who has enjoyed the trust of
pure women,

the respect of intelligent men and
the love of little children;

who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

who has left the world better than he found it
whether by an improved poppy,
a perfect poem or a rescued soul;

who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;

who has always looked for the best in others and
given them the best he had;

whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

I really love that poem.


  1. I think most people judge success by comparing themselves to notable other people around them. Their parents for example. If I judge my life to have been as rewarding as my parents, I probable am going to consider myself successful. But if I can’t measure up to my parents lives, I am probably going think of myself as somewhat of a failure. I believe that has something to do with why children of very successful people often find life somewhat difficult for them. There is no way they can measure up to the standard of which they are measuring themselves by.

  2. These were quite inspiring, John. I was pleasantly surprised by Warren Buffet’s definition. And Ms. Stanley’s poem has been a guidepost to me for most of my life.

  3. In my view success is counted by how many others (people, creatures, the world itself) one has positively affected during one’s lifetime journey in small or larger ways… in other words did you leave the world better than you found it, and did you thank those around you who believed in you and helped you accomplish that success.


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