What Does Success Feel Like?

| | General Leadership

“Let me dive into the water. Leave behind all that I’ve worked for. Except what I remember and believe. And when I stand on the farthest shore I will have all I need.”David Wilcox

When you envision your success what do you include?

If you are like most people you include things like how much money you will make or have, your dream home, perhaps that amazing car, or the things you want to be able to provide for your family.

For those who are philanthropically minded you may include how much you will give or something you will contribute to make a difference in the world.

If you are career minded you may include that big promotion, your ideal job, your dream business or perhaps attaining a PhD. I have included many of these things on my list. Some of them are still on that list.

All of those things are valid ways to define success. Except perhaps something is missing.

I don’t know if it’s that I am in my forties and I am experiencing some sort of mid-life awakening. Or perhaps it is because I have heard countless stories of people losing so much of what they have worked for their whole life in such a seemingly short period of time. Maybe it is because I have coached so many people recently who are questioning whether their definition of success was really theirs to begin with.

Whatever the reason I have been in an inquiry about defining success for myself and with my clients.

I listened to the song whose lyrics I quoted above and was reminded of an encounter with a friend over 15 years ago. My friend came to visit me for the weekend. We had not seen each other for a few years. When he got to my house he shared that everything he owned was in his car at that moment. I was really surprised because since college he seemed to be on quite a fast track to success. Turns out he invested everything in his brother’s business and lost it all.

Yet the the most interesting thing he shared was that he had never felt so free. He was clear that he would build back what he had lost and then some. He certainly wasn’t heading to a remote island somewhere to drown his sorrows. In fact he was more motivated than ever to succeed.

But he said that he learned something invaluable. He now knew what he wanted success to feel like – the kind of internal life he wanted to experience each and every day. He believed that one aha would have a more profound impact on the rest of his life than anything else he learned.

It certainly impacted me. For me it brought to the forefront three things that were not previously on my list – my desire for freedom and choice, the opportunity to express my creativity and to make a difference in the lives of others. Those are my experiential guideposts for success. And they have guided me in every decision I have made since, especially the one to venture out on my own despite how scary it seemed at the time. I am so grateful to be living the life that I do now including doing the work that I do even when things are hard because I get to experience those three things just about every day.

Success is an inner game. Consider that it is not a place to get to or a thing to acquire, but rather an experience of being satisfied with the life you have. It does not live in the things like the house,the car, the position, or the degree. It does not come from the assessments of others like a performance appraisal or the self assessments we make when we compare ourselves to others. It lives in our experience each and every day.

Perhaps if we begin to look to our experience as a dimension to our success we can discover a much clearer pathway to making the day to day choices that put us on the path living the life of our dreams.

So how do you define success?

What does success look like to you? What does it feel like?

Maybe you don’t have to wait. Perhaps you can even start feeling success right now.


Enter A Comment

Wally Bock   |   12 August 2009   |   Reply

Very insightful, Susan. Bret Simmons just had a post on Goal Setting that dovetails nicely with this one. It’s at http://www.bretlsimmons.com/2009-08/committing-to-your-goals/

For me, at least, “success” has rarely had a number on it. Success was being able to travel to Italy for three months, for example. And I didn’t worry so much about tracking as identifying the two or three things I need to do every day to make that happen.

I think that those neatly phrased, cleanly measured goals have a place. But I think it really helps to understand what success will look, smell, feel, and sound like.

Art Petty   |   16 August 2009   |   Reply

Susan, what a wonderful and wonderfully important post. A very wise person shared with me a few years ago that he had realized that his core pursuit had shifted in his 40’s from success to significance. That statement has followed me ever after.

After 22 years and some great “success” in the corporate world, I stepped off of that track in pursuit of a new definition of success. I defined it loosely as: helping others grow and reach their professional and personal dreams and I began to measure it in terms of time and quality experiences with others.

The year helping care for my mother as she succumbed to cancer was priceless. Writing a book along with several hundred blog posts, learning to teach and consult and provide value to others in the process all are important measures for me. Now, my attention is on developing a business that truly makes a difference for others. I like the outcome of doing a great job…because that outcome, money, creates time to focus on the things that are truly important.

OK, I’ve waxed on long enough here. Thanks for the inspirational post. I’ve found so many people at this point in life that are struggling to come to grips with the success/significance issue. We often interpret it as a mid-life crisis. Perhaps, it is a mid-life awakening. -Art

Henie   |   13 August 2009   |   Reply


Thank you for pointing me to this post!

My definition of success is having the freedom to be unshackled by time…to express and share my creativity for others to enjoy!

The richest and most successful man/woman is he/she who has the luxury of time to spend as they enjoy at any time!

Joe Williams   |   16 August 2009   |   Reply

Susan, for me “success” is achieved when one is living a life fully aligned with one’s core values. Great post!

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2009   |   Reply

Read this great post today I had to share – this is one way to answer “what does success feel like?” Jonathan writes about those small yet significant moments that are the things that really matter.


nicholas   |   15 October 2009   |  

Great posts.Keep up the good work.That’s success.

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2009   |   Reply

@Mike You make some really great points. I especially resonate with what you said about the economy depending on us as “producers” rather than “consumers”. Not sure if this is what you had in mind in using the word producers but the word that comes to my mind is “contributors”.

@Wally Excellent examples of other dimensions of success. Like you said, there is a place for the “measurable” goals. But absent those other dimensions I think we increase the risk of achieving a goal without an experience of real satisfaction in the end.

@Henie I can see freedom is a dimension of success we share!

@Joe Great point. There is an amazing quality to our experience of life when what we are doing aligns with our values.

@Art From “success to significance” is a great distinction for those of us in the “mid life awakening” phase of life. Thanks for sharing about your mom – what an incredible gift for you both. I think it is those kinds of choices that source a mid life awakening (vs. a crisis).

Ann Evanston   |   25 August 2009   |   Reply

Very interesting post. Years ago I used to do a visualization activity with my audiences about success and defining it for them. Having done it with over 5000 people, only ONE brought up material things like you describe early on in this article.

I think many people know what it looks like, but getting there is another thing for them!

Ann Evanston
The Warrior is Within You

Jason Shick   |   26 August 2009   |   Reply

The timing of this post resonates with me. This week I found out a old friend of the family is suffering from ALS, more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. If you know nothing about the disease, it isn’t pleasant and life expectancy is 3-5 years. Anyway, it made me slow down, take some time and really ponder this question that you so eloquently write about Susan. The truth is, there really isn’t success without significance. I have a strange feeling that when we all come to those last moments in our life we will be more concerned with significance as it realates to relationships and people than we will be with success… and that is the catch-22 because if we look back on questions of significance and have no regrets, then we will know if we were truly successful.

So my short answer is- success to me is creating value and significance, building relationships, and having no regrets when we check-out of this life and check-in upstairs.

Dr. Ben   |   15 October 2009   |   Reply

What a great post! So glad I saw @LollyDaskal’s reference to it. Love the questions you raise, and the story of your friend, and the powerful summary you came away with:

my desire for freedom and choice, the opportunity to express my creativity and to make a difference in the lives of others.

Definitely triggers some key tho’ts for reflection for all of us!