the definition of success

How do you define success? Is it a large house surrounded by a white picket fence and a lush green lawn? How about a high-paying career that includes yearly bonuses and a fancy title? In my eyes these were the epitome of the American Dream and I desperately wanted both.

To achieve these goals my husband and I threw ourselves into our careers. At the time we were young and eager with lots of energy so work didn’t feel like a sacrifice.

Our hard work paid off two decades later. As we stood on the brink of financial independence I pulled out a blank sheet of paper and wrote down the steps that led to this pivotal moment. I scribbled down the highlights of our financial past as quickly as my mind could recall them.

As I looked down at that paper a question came to mind. What am I most proud of?

Is it purchasing our first property at the ripe old age of twenty-two or buying a beach house at the age of twenty-seven? How about raising my salary from $32,000 to six figures in under six years? Maybe it’s becoming a millionaire in my early thirties? The small business we owned in our mid-thirties? Oh, I nearly forgot, becoming financially independent at 40? That seems like a pretty big deal, right? It must be that one.

There I sat reflecting on my past accomplishments. Each bulleted item representing a tiny step in the journey we had embarked upon. The ladder to financial independence was laid out before us and we had climbed every rung.

Standing at the pinnacle of financial freedom I patted myself on the back for all that we had achieved. The quest was over. The list complete. We were successful.

The Definition of Success

Initially a feeling of peace washed over me, but as I sat there quietly mulling over the list a new thought entered my mind. “What am I most proud of?” is an open-ended question. Why was my list of accomplishments so incredibly narrow?

I am proud of our financial success, (no doubt about it), but at the end of the day the balance of my bank accounts says very little about who I am or what is important to me.

What does it mean to be successful in life? Here are my thoughts on the matter.

1. Pushing Through the Hurdles

My husband and I have known one another for more than half of our lives. In fact, our relationship spans two and a half decades already. Over the years we have both failed each other in many ways. Some issues are easy to overlook while others have plagued our relationship.

Our story is complex. Our trials and tribulations on this journey we call life have been far from easy. Few people will experience the struggles, (a near death experience, infertility, a workplace assault), that we have pushed through. Even fewer will experience them all.

None of these experiences have been easy. Some have temporarily shattered my belief in myself, doctors and even humanity. But every time life throws a fork in the road I do my best to look past the bad stuff. When I was hurting and in pain that wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

It’s easy to live a life without adversity. Sometimes I dream of an easier path, but honestly I would not be who I am without those bumps along the road. Each hurdle has made me kinder, more understanding and more compassionate. There is an inherent strength that arrives after hardship. In fact, I would argue pushing through the obstacles is a success in and of itself.

The greatest sense of pride often comes after I push through the pain. This has been true in life, love and work. I may not always succeed, but I will ALWAYS give it my best effort. Ultimately, I will be a better human being for trying.

2. Spending Time With My Children

I dreamed about being a mother long before my first child was conceived. Over seven and a half years ago I gave up my six-figure salary to stay-at-home with my children. And you know what? Given the same opportunity I would do it all over again.

Although I hope my children will remain close throughout their lifetimes I know that the time before they enter kindergarten is limited. I stay home so we can spend time together. We snuggle up on the couch to read books, play with the sprinkler on sunny days in the backyard and wrestle on Saturday mornings even though I’d rather spend an extra hour in bed.

I want to spend time with my kids teaching them in a way that they don’t even know they are learning. For me it’s not about pricey trips and extravagant birthday parties. It’s about bike rides to the playground, showing them how to skip rocks and hosting lemonade stands.

It’s about showing my kids that I can be there to attend their end of year musical shows. Showing up not only for the event but also dialing up Spotify so we can belt out the tunes as we cook dinner and drive to the grocery store.

I hope to impart the lessons that will help my children open their hearts to the world around them.

3. Maintaining Relationships

I was too devastated to speak at my grandmother’s funeral. In fact, I loved her so immensely that I cried every single time someone came up and told me how much she loved my children and I. I learned so many lessons from her over the years including how to be a strong woman, how to handle my finances and how to gracefully speak my mind and disagree.

I treasure the time we spent together, but I still wish I had traveled more to see her before she died. Of course, in my heart I know no amount of time would have been enough.

We are all so busy with life. So hurried and distracted that we don’t make the time to visit with the people we most care about. We allow our daily chores to get in the way of real human connections.

I want to take time to visit with my parents even when I’m tired. I’m willing to sit in traffic if necessary to visit long time friends.

A successful life is spent cultivating friendships and relationships. Ensuring we don’t fall out touch with those who have positively impacted our lives.

4. Feeling Confident

It’s easy to allow the concerns of others to weigh heavily upon us. We only get one chance at this life yet we often spend a large portion of our time convincing others that we are making the right decisions in life or worse yet not pursuing our goals at all.

Over time I’ve allowed my own perfectionism to interfere with my ambitions. I keep telling myself I might not be good enough. I put my hands on the keyboard but find my mind turns to mush and my fingers don’t move.

Success is pursuing your dreams. Not worrying about what other people think of us. Believing in ourselves and keeping the judgements of others on the periphery of our lives. That includes following the rules you set yourself, rather than the rules someone else set for you. Don’t let the disappointment of others cloud your decisions.

Success is feeling confident in our decisions and recognizing that we are worthy of dreaming and meeting our goals. 

5. Learning How To Help

Success is constantly learning. Not just in ways that earn us more money or better our net worth, but in ways that fill our souls. I want to take time to explore my behaviors and actions. It’s important to learn from my past regrets and mistakes.

When it’s appropriate I work to gracefully forgive those who have wronged me and admit my own faults when I have been wrong. Many arguments begin with simple misunderstandings. I’ve learned that with age. Now I work to understand the root of the situation and to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

Along the way I want to lend a hand when others need help or provide a hug when someone is hurting. Sometimes we think we need to do a lot to make a difference. With little time or resources we choose to do nothing at all, but I strive to remember that small impacts can make big ripples around the world.

I’m trying to stop rushing about in such a hurry so I can take time to look around. I smile as I walk through the grocery store, offering to help an elderly woman with her grocery cart and reaching up on the shelf for the kid who can’t quite get that box of cereal. Starting with the small things I will eventually figure out how to help on a grander scale.

6. Nourishing My Body

I have not been blessed by perfect genetics. At twenty-seven I experienced a close brush with death. I have always been relatively long and lean, but I never exercised much beyond natural play as a child. After my medical crisis I vowed to never take my body for granted.

With this body I want to explore the world. That doesn’t have to mean trips around the globe, but rather stepping outside, walking, hiking and spending time outdoors. Anyone who is ill would gladly give away all of their money for a functional body.

I wish to remain in good health and to keep it that way to the best of my ability. Success is being as healthy as my genetics will allow.

7. Feeling Joy

I’ve wasted countless hours, days, weeks and perhaps even years permitting my intellect and worries to darken the world around me. Decisions concerning my education, career, relationships, health and parenting weigh on my soul. The conscious effort to control my surroundings and ensure competence can prevent me from experiencing joy.

Laughter is fundamental to life. While some people naturally migrate to that emotion I must work extra hard to capture and retain the feeling. In order to focus on those happy moments I make a point to count my blessings and reflect on my good fortune.

Success is nothing if you step through your days sour and miserable, so I search for ways to incorporate joy into every day. Sometimes just being present in the moment is all I need. It’s those little things like hearing my children’s laughter, feeling the soft squeeze of their hugs or stepping outside to feel the sun.

I don’t need big moments to find happiness. In fact, I find the small moments matter so much more than the big ones. A life well lived is a life filled with joy.

8. Being Cognizant of Time

Most of us are granted very limited time on this Earth. The longest human lifespan ever on record lasted 122 years. While that seems like an enormous stretch of time I bet the healthy years flew by in an instant.

We all know that time is a precious resource, yet we waste so much of it. We work in careers and occupations that don’t fill our souls. Then we spend our evenings zoned out in front of computers and televisions. As children we dream of impossible things, but eventually we grow into adults that go through the motions of life with little imagination.

I don’t want to get lost in the void of space. I want to treasure my time in this world by being accountable to the life clock that ticks away before me. To live a successful life I want to make the most of this most limited resource.