A young lawyer recently told me that she thought she was going to make junior partner at the law firm where she had been working. When I congratulated her, she said, “Oh, that will just give me a toehold. I won’t feel like I’ve succeeded till I’m a senior partner at a much more prestigious firm.”
Soon after that, a man who had sold his business for a great deal of money told me that he needed a new project “to build on that success.”
And that same week, a friend told me that he had just sold a collection of his short stories to a well-respected publishing house. But, he said, “I’ll never be particularly successful as a writer.”
These comments brought my attention to something that has been coming up more and more, not just in therapy sessions with my clients but in conversations with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and family: How do we measure success?
The answer to this question is complicated. Many of us judge success, at least initially, by external, quantifiable factors. In the world of business, for instance, research shows that success is generally equated with financial gain. In the social realm, many of us assess accomplishment in a similar way, by counting social media “friends,” even though they may not provide any real friendship, or gaining what psychoanalysts Robert Stolorow and Frank Lachmann have called “gilt by association” through a friendship with someone famous. Physical attractiveness is also often viewed as a sign of achievement, but gilt by association works here, too—sometimes your success is measured by the way the person you are with looks and dresses.
But there is a problem with this quantifiable version of success, at least if you consider success to be a path to happiness, contentment, and positive self-esteem.
Recent research into happiness suggests that a less quantifiable definition of success actually leads to a greater sense of contentment and, ultimately, a sense of having made something of your life.
How to redefine success for yourself
Changing your mindset is not always an easy thing to do, but when it comes to feeling successful, here are some thoughts that can help.
Author Richard St. John points out that success is not a one-time, static sensation. Rather than viewing an achievement as the end of the journey of success, it is better to think of it as one more step along the way. In his view, when we stop trying, we fail.
Art historian Sarah Lewis offers another healthy way to think about success. She speaks of success as “a moment” that combines creativity and mastery. Under this definition, she argues, a “near win” can be more valuable than an actual win in the process of becoming the person you want to be. The process is far more important than any single accomplishment. As she put it during a Ted Talk:
“Mastery is not a commitment to a goal but to a constant pursuit. What gets us to do this, what get us to forward thrust more is to value the near win. How many times have we designated something a classic, a masterpiece even, while its creator considers it hopelessly unfinished, riddled with difficulties and flaws, in other words, a near win?”
Success is a process
I think about these ideas every year when the Nobel Prize winners are announced. Often, the people who win have been working for years on the projects for which they are being rewarded. I have no way of knowing, of course, but I hope that they have not been waiting to win the prize in order to feel a sense of satisfaction about what they have accomplished. I hope (and imagine) that they have found pleasure in the work itself, even when they conducted experiments that failed, even when their colleagues thought their tasks were meaningless, even when they were not able to save the people they were trying to rescue.
For Lewis, as for St John, the point of success is not about achieving a one-time goal, after which you’re going to feel good about yourself for the rest of your life. Instead, it is a feeling of accomplishment that should propel you to continue the process. And the process is not a matter of material or even observable accomplishments. It’s an ongoing course in finding what makes you feel like you are working to be the person you want to be.
Whether your goal is to make partner in a prestigious law firm or to get to the finish line of a race, to sell a book, to find a partner, to be a good parent or a good friend, the feeling of success and satisfaction can be found in the process, not the accomplishment.
Diane Barth is a psychotherapist in NYC and author of the book I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.