How do you define success? It seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? As a word, success has a clear definition: The accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Your personal definition of success may be identified by meeting certain life and career goals. Success could come in the form of a job title or a salary bracket. It could be something you identify by a measure of fiscal comfort, your relationships with others, or some other tangible component of life. No matter the specifics, however, you always come back to that dictionary definition. You set a goal. You met that goal.
Except, maybe it’s not that simple.
Arthur Ashe once said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” Perhaps he’s on to something. Success isn’t necessarily about checking off the right boxes. It’s not about getting everything you want. Success is an evolving journey. It’s growing. It’s becoming. It’s living into your potential and finding new branches of your life to explore along the way. In other words, it’s not about where you arrive. It’s about how you grew on your way there.
What’s the difference?
“If I had a million dollars,” begins the Barenaked Ladies
song of the same name. The lyric goes on to list all the things one could do, ranging from purchasing art to taking a limo to the store. It’s a fun song with a peppy tune. Yet as we wind our way through it, no one mentions happiness and satisfaction. The same would probably hold true if the song were titled “If I were a CEO.”
Your goal might have been to reach this measurable pinnacle point. Noting your progress and achievement is easy when it’s a tangible target like an income bracket or a title. The accomplishment, however, isn’t about where you ended up. If you purchased a lottery ticket and won big, you might be happy to achieve a level of fiscal security, but would you be proud? Would you feel accomplished?
Try this scenario instead. You work hard. You muscle your way through challenges. You stumble, get up and forge ahead. You grow. You develop skills you never dreamed of having. You reach a tangible goal you once set for yourself. The satisfaction you feel having arrived there isn’t about checking the goal off your list. It’s rooted in the way you expanded on your way there.
Why does it matter?
You set a goal. You reach it. You set another. If there’s breath left in you, there’s always a new finish line to move toward. Sometimes you set a goal and you don’t reach it. You get about halfway down the track and you realize this isn’t a goal for you. Maybe the final post keeps moving further out of reach or you hit a detour that completely throws you off course. Perhaps you realize you’re not all that happy on this path after all and you’re ready for a new trail. In these scenarios, you’re left in a difficult position. If your definition of success is fixated solely on your destination, it can leave you feeling dissatisfied and lost. Either way, you face the quandary, “What next?”
However, when you expand your definition of success to include the journey itself, meeting your goal (or not) becomes a more holistic experience. Your success is about your personal development. It lies in the things you’ve mastered along the way. It’s about the discovery. Setting a new goal or correcting your course becomes something to look forward to with a measure of excitement.
So, now what?
“Cheryl, are you telling me not to bother with goal setting?”
you’re thinking now. No. Identifying a goal, and making a plan to achieve it, is valuable. Seeing success as a process does not negate the importance of setting a target to aim for. Quite the opposite. Setting a goal and identifying where you’re headed is a helpful tool to get you focused and moving forward. It gives you something to grow toward. Readjusting your ideas about success, however, keeps you from getting so caught up in the horizon that you fail to grow into the person who can reach it. It allows you to see the lessons in failure. It helps you grow from the setbacks. It helps you face change and uncertainty as if they were a new adventure to be conquered on your way to the finish line. And most importantly, it allows you to value the person you’re becoming along the way.
Grow strong and enjoy the ride.