If you’re struggling to define what a successful life means, I have two pieces of good news for you:
- It’s never too late to start over.
- You get to write your own definition of success.
Many of us chase career titles, money, or social status — and yet we don’t feel successful when we get those things.
That’s because you can only measure success in your life when you define what drives your happiness and helps you find purpose.
A one-size-fits-all approach is impossible.
Let’s talk about how successful people achieve great things by defining their own terms for success.
It’s never too late to write your success story
Many people think that they’re already too old to succeed.
Let’s consider some facts:
- At age 23, Oprah had just been fired from her first broadcasting job.
- At age 30, Jonah Peretti was teaching middle schoolers before founding his billion-dollar media companies, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.
- At age 40, Stan Lee finally achieved success with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and X-Men comics.
- At age 50, Julia Child wrote her first cookbook.
- At age 62, Kernel Sanders’ fried chicken business KFC finally succeeded.
- At age 77, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president after spending 27 years in jail.
If we can learn anything from these people who succeed later in life, it’s this:
Success has no deadline.
In fact, according to the Forbes Top 100 list, on average, the people who found the world’s biggest companies don’t start until age 35. Out of 539 founders, the average age of starting their company was 40. Many of the world’s most successful people don’t even start pursuing their dreams until their 50s or 60s.
Success doesn’t mean by a certain age, at a certain time, or by a certain deadline. It isn’t about any other person’s measures or metrics except your own.
I’ve always wanted to write a book. And at age 40, I did.
But the book I published didn’t feel like “My Book.”
By age 50, I thought I was ready, but the timing wasn’t right.
Not until I turned 60 did I feel ready and able to write the book I truly wanted to write. Now more than ever, I feel ready to let “My Book” spill out of me and onto the page.
Success must match the rhythm of your soul.
Writing “My Book” came naturally only after some major life lessons and transformations. I used those experiences to answer the big questions in my soul. But it could only happen at the right moment.
What does success mean to me?
I used one of the most cathartic and depressing points of my life as the catalyst to define my take on success. It came when I stepped out of the closet — only to lose family and friends, status and regard.
In the midst of this heartbreak and hope, I was vulnerable. I realized what I needed most at this point in my life: open minds and soft hearts.
My mind had opened wide enough to burst out of silence and hiding. I wanted soft hearts and compassion because my heart had softened, too. An open mind and soft heart finally became the seedbed for the most courageous act of my life to that point.
Moving forward, I sought these values in myself and others, above all. I defined for myself that, at the end of my life, the most important markers of success would be how I answer these two questions:
- How open is my mind?
- How soft has my heart remained?
These questions define what success looks like for me.
When my mind is closed to new ideas and resisting change, I’m not achieving my definition of success. When my heart is hard, holding onto anger and hate, I’m failing.
I measure personal success based on the people who had my back at my most vulnerable point. I carry these questions with me, to guide me through transitions and transformations rocking the foundations of my life.
Today, these questions lead me through successful ventures in all areas of my life.
Including the ability to finally write the book I’ve always wanted to write.
What does success mean to you?
Understanding success in your terms doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and many acts of courage, to uncover the deeper questions at the heart of your success journey.
You have to learn how to believe in yourself.
So the question becomes:
How can you discover the seeds waiting to blossom into ideas that drive the process of finding your purpose and meaning in your life?
I’m going to walk you through a short exercise to help get to the root of what success means to you. But first, let’s talk about what success doesn’t mean.
Success doesn’t mean copying what someone else is doing as a metric of your worth. If you use a comparison of achievements as a regular practice, you’re using an unhealthy and toxic practice. STOP that SHIT!
When you think about the strengths of others and then compare them to your weaknesses, how do you measure up? Does it feel good?
As funny as it sounds, we’ve all done just that — compare our flaws to the strengths in other people.
Maybe you see someone online sharing news about a promotion, an engagement, a new car, or a lavish vacation.
We all know what happens next. We immediately look at ourselves to see how we size up. “Megan just bought a new house. Why don’t I have that at my age? What’s wrong with me?”
That’s not to say that comparison has no benefit. Mentors and role models can serve as great sources of inspiration. They demonstrate leadership qualities, and show the steps toward achieving big goals and proving that it can be done, at any age.
More often though, comparing yourself to others will leave you feeling dissatisfied and inadequate.
It causes you to lose sight of your strengths and accomplishments. Comparison gives a skewed version of reality that highlights your insecurities while exaggerating the success of other people.
Stop comparing your blooper reel to everyone else’s highlight reels.
When you see someone who seems to have it all, you don’t see the full picture. People project their best achievements and rarely expose their painful failures. In other words, you see the highlights — a glamorous montage of achievements, distinctions, and talents.
At the same time, you can only see yourself from behind the scenes. Day-to-day life is not always exciting, for anyone. It’s filled with awkward moments, messy emotions, and yes — mistakes.
Comparison sets you up for failure from the start. It traps you in an ongoing cycle of insecurity in which you’ll never quite measure up.
The wrong kind of comparison puts attention on the assets of other people, rather than focusing on your strengths and goals. Getting caught up in other peoples’ achievements causes you to lose sight of your values.
You wind up chasing someone else’s dreams rather than pursuing your version of success.
What does success look like?
Since we know that comparison and status symbols are the worst way to define success, let’s talk about creating a better definition — tailored to your unique purpose in life.
The path to prosperity begins by finding out: what it means to you?
Take a moment. Close your eyes. Imagine your life the way you would like it to turn out.
Picture what it looks like when:
- You are performing at your best.
- You embody the characteristics you admire.
- You have accomplished everything you wanted.
Now, take a piece of paper. Spend 10 minutes writing down what you see. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation.
Simply list all the milestones you want to achieve in different areas of your life. List the principles, habits, career path, relationships, and possessions that define this version of you.
When you’re finished writing, ask yourself these questions:
- Do the goals and attributes in your list align with your values?
- Are these your goals, or are they based on the expectations of someone else?
- Do some of the things on your list matter more than others?
- Have you already accomplished some of the things on your list?
- If not, what are you doing now to work toward these goals?
This process of assessing what you imagine against what you truly desire is powerful. It enables you to highlight goals that mean the most to you — and stop chasing the ones that don’t matter.
You will notice that some items on your list stand out more than others. Think of these as your main dreams and aspirations. Success means moving towards these goals.
At the same time, other items will feel less important. When you examine why you want those things, you may realize… you don’t. Superficial goals and chasing someone else’s dream will lead you further away from success.
If this exercise makes you feel far behind where you think you should be, don’t think of it as a revelation of your failures. Instead, look at it as a new roadmap towards success, and an opportunity to start changing your life.
This way of approaching success provides a starting point that falls in line with your core values.
The next step is taking this clarified vision of success, and creating actionable, short-term goals that will create long-term success.
Discovering your success journey is best done in baby steps.
Looking at big goals can feel daunting. Building a profitable business, writing a book, becoming badass in your field — these things don’t happen overnight.
Through research and experience, I’ve learned that tackling big achievements happens by taking small steps consistently, towards a goal that you enjoy pursuing.
Chicago Booth researchers discovered that to achieve long-term success, you also have to consider short-term rewards. The study surveyed a group of 80 gym members asking:
- Did they enjoy the day’s workout? (a short-term reward)
- Did it feel useful to stay in shape? (long-term reward)
- How many minutes did you spend on the cardio machine?
The researchers found that those who enjoyed their workout spent more time on the cardio machines. In other words, enjoying the process increases your ability to succeed long-term.
While long-term goals are important, studies like this show that finding joy in what you do leads to better success overall.
Maximizing the presence of immediate rewards when pursuing long-term goals, rather than relying on the importance of the goal to carry through, should increase goal persistence.
When you are deciding what success looks like for you, think about the daily steps you will have to take to achieve it.
Of course, it will be hard work. Every big achievement takes hard work. But the work itself has to feel rewarding. Picture what it will feel like working towards the goals you have in mind, and ask yourself:
- Does it use your strengths, or demand skills you’re not suited for?
- Do you enjoy doing it, or do you dread the daily effort?
- Does it make you feel strong and competent, or ineffective and weak?
- Can you see yourself doing the work long enough to get results?
When you paint a picture of success that demands work you hate doing, chances are you will give up long before you reach your goal.
So take your time, and conduct plenty of experiments before you commit to significant changes. Start small and see what if feels like.
How do you define success?
To me, money, status, and possessions are poor indicators of success. There are much more powerful measures to look at:
- Truth: Do you speak and act from your soul?
- Strength: How strong and resilient are you?
- Focus: Are you pursuing what truly matters in your life?
Success develops from your willingness to try repeatedly for a breakthrough — to sweat all the way down until the salt of your soul spills out on the floor.
The lessons and experiences at every stage of life must take place before those big “a-ha” moments that can change your life can happen.
And when you’re ready to reach for it, I can help you find the focus you need to achieve your definition of success.