Redefining Success

2012 Olympic MedalsYou are probably having withdrawal symptoms from the Olympic games, which just ended on Sunday.

I certainly am. :-)

I am usually not a sports fan, but it’s hard not to get swept up by the Olympic spirits. It has been an exciting fourteen days, watching these amazing athletes and the astonishing things their bodies could do, sharing the anticipation and the excitement from the crowd, and celebrating all the truly extraordinary achievements.

What touched me the most was the demonstration of human potential, of overcoming difficulties and achieving the seemingly impossible. My eyes would spontaneously well up as stories of hard work and perseverance and dedication, which finally led to Olympic medals, were recounted time and time again.

But then, there were also the heartbreaking moments, when someone who worked just as hard missed the chance of becoming an Olympic champion or medalist by one-tenth of a second, a meter or a point.

Here are just two examples:

Wu Jingbiao (photo: after winning the silver medal in the men’s 56kg weight lifting event, Wu Jingbiao, China’s two-time world champion broke down in tears and apologized for letting down his country:

“I feel terribly guilty for disappointing my country, the Chinese weightlifting team and all the people who supported me. I am sorry!”

Lolo Jones at the Finish Line of the Women's 100m Hurdle (photo: Mark Blinch, Reuters)Lolo Jones of the United States, a defending world champion in the 60m hurdle, also broke down in tears on the “Today” show, the day after she missed the bronze medal by just one-tenth of a second in the women’s 100m hurdle. Lolo called the results “crushing”. Her time for the race: 12.58 seconds.

Think about that: a silver Olympic medal and a 12.58 seconds time…astonishing successes no matter what standard you use, yet both athletes were devastated.

This got me thinking about success and what it means.

How Success Is Commonly Defined
Here are three common ways we as a society define success:

#1. Fame and Fortune
Fame and fortune are definitely the yardsticks by which success is most commonly measured. Whether you are considered successful has everything to do with what number is in your bank account, what house you live in, what car you drive, what title you have, how many people will recognize you on the street, etc. If you don’t have anything that allows you to act like a somebody, then you’re a nobody.

#2. One-Upmanship
Success also commonly involves a point of comparison. Whether you are successful is relative. Are you more successful than your peer group of the same age and background? Are you more successful than your friends and your neighbors? Do you have the biggest house on the block?

Or, do you find yourself downplaying your own accomplishments and successes because others have achieved them as well?

#3. External Approval
Finally, success is often about gaining external approval. While it is great that you managed to accomplish a goal, whether you feel successful or not often hinges on whether those around you or the public at large deem it big enough to be worthy of recognition or celebration. And by the way, the comparison, the fame, and the fortune all come into play as to whether you receive the external approval or not.

What Success Is Really About
Now that we’ve looked at the most common definitions, I have a question for you:

How do you define success for yourself?

If you’re like most people, your definition of success is probably a combination of all three outlined above. No matter which definition(s) you use though, notice that they all have one thing in common: dependency on external standards.

That’s right, most of us are used to allowing something outside of ourselves to define what success is for us.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with fame or fortune or approval. There is also nothing wrong with striving for excellence, and being the best in competition.

The problem occurs when we start to believe that these are the only indicators of success, that they alone determine whether we are worthy, whether we’ve done enough, whether we are good enough. The problem occurs if/when some or all of these external accolades should go away, we are left without meaning or value or worth.

So we drive ourselves to the point of exhaustion trying to do more and get more, yet we are rarely happy. And we are constantly stressed.

Since the pursuit of happiness is one of the most common goals in life, wouldn’t you agree that our definitions of success aren’t serving us too well?

I think it is time we each define success for ourselves, in such a way so that we can feel proud and worthy and enough no matter what our external circumstances happen to be.

Take some time this week and ask yourself: what does success mean to me?

It is a question worth pondering, and you are the only one who can answer it.

To get you started with some ideas, here is how I define it:

  • Success is accomplishing a goal I set out for myself, any goal, large or small.
  • Success is always doing my best, on any given day.
  • Success is spending my life doing what I find meaningful.
  • Success is based on what I do, not what others do or say or think.

Back To The Olympics…Roger Federer Winning the Silver Medal in Men's Single Tennis (photo: Julian Finney, Getty Images)
I’d like to end the post with an athlete who wore his silver medal with pride. Roger Federer, the current number 1 tennis player in the world, was defeated in straight sets by Andy Murray, possibly losing the only chance he had at winning a career Golden Slam (4 grand slam titles plus an Olympic gold medal). Yet Federer said he was still happy: “It was unfortunate, but it was still a great day for me…Andy was just the best player of the tournament.”

By the way he congratulated Murray after the match, and the way he responded in the interviews, it is clear to me that Federer follows the beat of his own drum, and all the external accolades are nice-to-have’s, not necessities.

And that to me is true success.

How do you define success? Share in the comments below!

And if you find yourself having trouble finding a definition of success that isn’t dependent on external standards, we should talk! :-)

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  1. I love this post Jarlin! And not only because I was glued to the Olympics myself. :) I totally agree, if you only measure success by external metrics, it may not be a very happy life!

  2. I’m always in awe of these extraordinary athletes, not just at the Olympic level but in every competition. They are amazing and beautiful in what they bring to the games.

    A change in mindset & perspective is required to see our successes as successes and not depending on what others say or think or do. It’s not an easy task to do – we’ve been so used to measure against others since grade school then again when we get to the workplace – but a necessary step to take.

    Great post! Thank you.

    • Jarlin Sung says:

      Thanks Thu!

      You’re right…we’re so conditioned to automatically compare ourselves to others, or only allowing ourselves to feel successful when others agree and approve. The shift in mindset will take time, but it will happen. The first step is awareness. Notice what definition of success you default to in your day-to-day life. Beware of how you use the word “success” when it comes to others. It will tell you a lot about how you measure your own value and worth.

      Keep me posted! :)

  3. The games are not over 😉 as Paralympic 2012 starts on August 29. We are lucky to be reminded by these amazing athletes and your inspiring words.

  4. Hi Jarlin, great post! I was watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday when she was discussing happiness. One of the interviewees, an undertaker, remarked that people want significance. That resonated with me. All my success chasing was about wanting to feel significant. I wanted to feel like I mattered. The idea that I wanted significance made things click into focus. After all, I believe that I am inherently significant. I don’t have to do anything to earn my place in the world. Success, even when the goal is mine not someone else’s, feels like I am going after something. Significance feels like I am already it.

    • Jarlin Sung says:

      Hi Nneka!

      I love your statement “I believe that I am inherently significant”. :) Way to go!

      I think it’s perfectly okay to go after something. It is a part of human nature, to continuously expand and grow and evolve, to do today what we couldn’t do yesterday. The secret is to not let the fact that there is more growing to do take away from our inherent worthiness.

      Why not stand strong in your inherent significance AND seek to expand into your limitless potential? :)

      • Oh, ABSOLUTELY yes to growing!!! I love growth. It’s one of my values. It’s the getting, getting, getting, always getting, always looking forward and missing what was here and now. Now I stand in the moment with clarity about where I want to go and enjoy every bit of the journey:-)

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