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How to Define Success for Yourself: Personalizing Your Path to Fulfillment

May 20, 2024 | By Tim Daly, CPA, CFP®
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It all started with a dream. You strive to have a successful life. So you go to college, work hard, find a job, get promoted, and get promoted again. You’ve made it! But where have you gone? 

To the outsider looking in, you appear successful: great job, married, kids, a dog, a house. But all this “success” could come with unanticipated downsides: missing out on family and friend time, sparse community engagement, and a lack of meaning. So how did you get there?

The Illusion of Success: What Does it Really Look Like?

So often we hear, “oh, that person is so successful” or,” I’ll be successful when…” We may think we know what success is or what it looks like, but do we really? School doesn’t necessarily do a great job preparing us to think about personal goals, instead, they push us to get straight A’s or else, do all your homework or else, join every club/sport possible or else, which leads us to think this is success. And social media… Everyone on social media is successful: Perfect job, perfect vacation, perfect house, perfect day, perfect life. 

That’s why this phenomenon is known as the illusion of success. 

Success Beyond Social Norms: Defining What Success Means to You

See, success is not black and white. For the most part, it’s pretty subjective. Sure, there are some objective successes like a team winning the Super Bowl or getting a promotion at work. Then there is what pop culture tells us are objective successes like making a lot of money, having a big house, and wearing fancy clothes. But success to one person might seem pretty blah to the next. 

Take my life, one of the ways I feel successful is by spending as much time outside as possible, preferably riding my bike or walking my dogs, but some folks might see that as punishment. And that’s okay. The important part here is knowing what success means to YOU. 

What motivates YOU and what gets YOU up in the morning? Not what someone tells you success is.  

The Spectrum of Success: Avoiding the Extremes

When you zoom out and take a look at success from a 10,000-foot view, it’s important to understand that success lies on a spectrum (below). On the most extreme ends, there is perfectionism and depression, with enough right in the middle. 

You may be thinking: don’t you need to be perfect if you want to be successful? 

In most instances, probably not. 

Think about it this way, here are some words that describe perfectionism: excessive comparison, never feeling like you’re good enough, and striving for the next dopamine hit. You know what else those words describe? Depression. So, how can we avoid these two extremes? By realizing that enough is really enough and taking time to understand what success looks like for YOU.

diagram showing the sliding scale of success

The Building Blocks of Personal Success: The PERMA Model

One way to do this is to take success and break it into pieces. Martin Seligman, a psychologist and the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has created the building blocks for flushing (in this case success): PERMA or Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. 

Let’s take a look at the PERMA model of success in more detail: 

Positive Emotion (P)

The P in PERMA refers to your ability to experience positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, contentment, and love as they relate to success. Consistently experiencing these emotions contributes to one's overall sense of satisfaction and well-being.

Engagement (E)

Engagement, the ‘E’, is about becoming deeply absorbed and involved in those personal activities that capture your full attention and engage your unique skills. This is often experienced when participating in tasks or activities that are challenging yet aligned with one's personal skills, which leads to a state of being fully immersed and losing track of time.

Relationships (R)

Success and relationships go hand-in-hand. That’s why the ‘R’ in PERMA is so important. Positive relationships are crucial for psychological well-being. Humans are inherently social beings, and having supportive, loving relationships contributes significantly to our happiness. This includes relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and broader social networks.

Meaning (M)

Meaning, the ‘M’, pertains to belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. You can derive meaning from contributing to causes, being part of your community, and engaging in activities that align with your own values and beliefs.

Accomplishment (A)

The ‘A’ in PERMA focuses on the pursuit of success, mastery, or achievement for its own sake. It involves setting and working toward goals that are important to YOU, which provides a sense of accomplishment and contributes to self-esteem.

When these five components come together, they can lead to a successful life well lived. 

Redefining Success Throughout Life’s Stages

From a young age, going back to the school example above, we are mostly taught about accomplishment, or as the Positive Psychology Center puts it, “(to) pursue achievement, competence, success, and mastery for its own sake, in a variety of domains, including the workplace, sports, games, hobbies, among others. People pursue accomplishment even when it does not necessarily lead to positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.”

What if you met a person with an accomplished career who makes little time for themselves outside work, spends little time with their family and friends, and doesn’t get involved with causes they believe in. Are they still successful in your eyes? 

On the other hand, what if you met someone who has not accomplished much in most people’s view of success, but that person has had enough accomplishment for their own means and is a well-rounded person by way of Positive Emotion, Engagement Relationships, and Meaning? Would you think differently of them? 

Not only does success look different to everyone, but it also looks different to the same person throughout different stages of life. To the new college grad that just started their first job, success to them might be making enough money to move out from their parent’s house or meeting new friends in the new city they just moved to. To the 30-something who just had their first child, success to them might be getting more than 3 hours of sleep at a time or making sure they can balance work with family life to avoid missing those new family moments. Or the new retiree that has just worked for the past 45 years. Success might be traveling the world or spending as much time as possible with their grandkids. 

In the end, success is what you make of it. You may choose to strive for objective successes that can push you to perfection, or you may be someone who wants the well-rounded balance of having enough for all the components of PERMA. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

Actionable Steps to Define and Achieve Your Success

So, what can you do now to help you live your best, most successful life? 

Understand and write down what success means to you - try to avoid letting pop culture, social media or the guy down the block tell you what success looks like. There might be some things you want to accomplish that are objectively successful, but for the most part, a successful life for you looks much different than a successful life for others.

Understand that things change - over time as you age and your life evolves, the way you view success will also change. Although change can sometimes be scary, don’t let this change dissuade you from living your best, most successful life. 

Be okay with failure - you may not always succeed at what you’ve set up to do, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying again. 

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