I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that most people reading this won’t have a clear and immediate answer to that question. And even if you think you do, you’re unlikely to have a high level of specific clarity around that answer. Whether in a cultural, corporate or individual context, more often than not we don’t do the work to define success specifically enough, so we’re not at all clear what it looks like in reality and consequently we simply won’t know if and when it comes along. And the kicker is that in the absence of this critical clarity, money moves in to fill the empty space like an unwelcome squatter and becomes our default measurement for success in all contexts. Cue plenty of misery!
From a purely biological perspective, success for a human being means simply surviving long enough to pass on our genetic make-up in the form of children. For millions of years, human beings didn’t have the luxury of thinking beyond staying alive for another day, week or month. In the not very distant past, however, for a very large proportion of humanity (and doubtless everyone reading this), day-to-day survival became a given, creating the problem of having to find something different to strive for, a new species-wide definition of success.
For a web of reasons too intricately woven to explore here, money became the default measurement by which we assess human success. If someone says, for example, “he’s very successful” without qualifying the statement any further, we immediately assume that the success is financial. We certainly wouldn’t expect to find that person living on the street clutching, say, the pub quiz trophy. Similarly, you don’t find many social enterprises listed in the FTSE 100 and your country wouldn’t be offered a seat at the G7 table for scoring highly on family values.
Everywhere people get busy with financial accumulation because they haven’t done the work to find out what they really want. No wonder that so many who achieve financial success end up feeling unexpectedly empty because it wasn’t what they really wanted.
Money in and of itself doesn’t make sense as an actual goal, unless your true ambition is to spend your time counting it. The goal is what the money enables, and all too often that hasn’t been clearly defined. Hence the emptiness.
In reality, of course, success can take an infinite number of forms, and since all of them are human inventions (not biological imperatives), none is any more or less valid than another. For some people, it might be all about family, for others it’s the difference they can make in the world, for others it’s how many of the world’s highest mountain peaks they can scale.
But whatever the goals, the reality is that truly specific personal visions of success are rare. And if we don’t know specifically where we’re trying to get to, then it’s quite challenging to plan the route - try typing “I’m not too sure” into your satnav and see what happens! Actually, the sort of broad goal that many people have might be the equivalent of entering just the name a city into your satnav, and clearly that doesn’t do the job.
This vagueness is a killer in a corporate context. I’ve come across many business co-founders who never discussed in detail or agreed what success looks like for their venture, and then it emerges somewhere down the line that they each wanted something quite different. The default assumption as ever is that everyone wants to sell the business for a truckload of money, and even if the founders are agreed on that (which they often are not), they’ll usually come a cropper on their respective definitions of “a truckload”!
Coaching can bring great clarity to this critical question of success. For the entrepreneurs I work with, the vision for their company has to be nested within their personal vision. I like to encourage people to articulate this, an exercise very few (if any) have done before, certainly not to the level of detail I suggest. Supporting people to pin down the specific can often bring about seismic shifts in their own assessment of what they really want. Questions like “If you achieved all this that you say you want, what would we see you doing on an average day?” can prove surprisingly powerful in unlocking an entirely new perspective on success.
Simply, the more detail you can give your internal satnav of success, the more likely it is to get you to exactly where you want to go.