The real meaning of success


How do you define success? Are you successful when you’ve reached your career goals? Financial goals? Are you successful when you have raised your kids, given them an education, and paid for their weddings? How about when you can retire with no financial worries? Others define success when they change their last diaper, break 100 in golf, or achieve a personal best time in the 5K.

Everyone has a different way to define success. Yet, why do so many individuals feel that their life is a failure? I just read that the suicide rate for adults is skyrocketing, especially for white, seemingly successful males.

I would like today to share my thoughts on the real definition of success. Here is my definition of success:

“Success in life is not determined by what you gain, but by what you give. When you live your life dedicated to loving and serving others, you are, indeed, successful.”

As you’ll read, success has nothing to do with hitting a dollar number, receiving a promotion, or any other typical definition of the word. But, first, let me pose three scenarios and you decide if each individual is a success:

  1. Diane has been serving full-time as project manager for a major new initiative in her firm. All project objectives have been hit on time and under budget. Yet, after two years, the company decided to cancel the project and cease all activities on it. Is Diane a success?
  2. Bob has been working his entire career to become Vice-President, Sales at a major company. Finally, after 22 years, he has achieved that goal. He is now making more money than he ever imagined possible, but the job requires that he travel extensively and work over 70 hours per week. As a result, Bob’s wife has filed for divorce and his two kids barely know him. Is Bob a success?
  3. Alan just lost his job due to “restructuring”. He does not have strong leads for a new position and will be dipping into his savings within three months if he cannot find new work. Yet, his family is very supportive and he has a strong network of friends and others helping him. Many of his ex-colleagues have even provided job leads and letters of recommendation to assist him. Alan has realized that he may need to change careers to find good employment in the future. Despite losing his job, is Alan successful?

I’m sure that one could argue for each of Diane, Bob, and Alan that they are successful. On the other hand, you could probably make a case that each has not been successful for a variety of reasons.

Let’s explore the meaning of success from three key perspectives… from our own viewpoint, from the viewpoint of others, and from God’s perspective. Each is important in one way or another, but each represents an important aspect of our life that cannot be ignored when we look at these key questions: Am I successful now? What needs to change for me to become successful? At the end of my life, what will determine if my life was a successful life?

Success from our own viewpoint

I often read obituaries from my hometown newspaper. I once read this life highlight from an individual’s story, “Was a member of his District championship 8th grade basketball team in 1952.” Sometimes I wonder if this individual, when looking back over his life, felt that his role on that basketball team so many decades ago was the highlight of his life. Did he consider his life a success because of that one highlight back in the 1950’s?

When I look at my own life and attempt to determine attributes of success, I think there are only three questions to ask:

  1. → Did I do the best I could in the times and circumstances of my life?
  2. → Did I make a positive difference in the lives of my family, my friends, my coworkers, and others I didn’t even really know?
  3. → Did I leave behind a legacy of peace, happiness, love, and encouragement?

You’ll notice that my three “markers” for success have nothing to do with the size of my house, the vacations I took, the car I drove, or my job title when I retired. The way I measure success in my own life is whether I made the most of the opportunities I was given, how I served and influenced others, and whether I left behind positive or negative. Certainly, even most of this is subjective. But, you can see success in these areas by whether friends and family enjoy your company and seek to be with you. You can know for sure whether you helped advance the careers or life of others.

For sure, one aspect of this viewpoint is whether you did your best for your family. Providing a stable and good lifestyle is important. Providing opportunities for education, recreation, and fulfillment is needed. Enjoying life and feeling a sense of accomplishment should be key goals of all of us. However, too many make this their primary objective in life. Pursuing self-happiness, at the expense of all others and all other activities, is often the root of depression and lack of fulfillment. Finding a balance that meets your basic personal responsibilities, yet allows ample opportunities to enhance the lives of others is that puzzle piece that we all seek to find.

Success from the viewpoint of others

Too many of us live our lives trying too much to please or impress others. In the end, the only thing that really matters is whether you left the world a better place. Though you can never know for sure how others view success in your life, these three questions might help guide your thoughts and actions regarding true success in their eyes:

  1. → When others think of me, does it make them smile?
  2. → When others think of me, do they think that their life is better because they knew me?
  3. → When others think of me, are they motivated to make a difference for someone else because of the example I left behind?

I have been with many families during their time of losing a loved one. I have NEVER heard anyone talk of that person’s material success. The conversations are always of fun times, loving memories, and what they did (or didn’t do) for others. You see, in the end, we all judge a successful life by how life was lived, not by what was collected.

When I think of the most successful people I have ever known, a common factor in each is how they made me feel being around them. These individuals always cared more about what I had to say or what was going on in my life than by impressing me with their own accomplishments. They always gave more than they got from me in return. And, they each exhibited a sense of joy because they were confident in who they were rather than a sense of agitation because of who they were not. You see, success exudes a sense of contentment and confidence that attracts others, not repels them.

Success from God’s perspective

The most important area of success in life is from the perspective of God. After all, if you believe in God, you know that our relationship with Him in the end determines our eternal fate. According to the Bible, what marks a successful life according to God:

  1. → Did I make peace with God by accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior?
  2. → Did I express my love for God by sharing my love with others?
  3. → Was my life marked by steady and consistent growth in knowledge, love, service, and dedication to God?

To be clear, we cannot work our way to peace with God. We are utterly helpless to restore the relationship with Him that was broken by our sin. However, God send His Son Jesus to redeem us. Jesus’ death on the cross, in our place, paid our debt and provides our bridge back to God. Success in God’s eyes is accepting the gift of eternal life bought by Jesus’ death on that cross. And, as a result of accepting Him, our life becomes a living expression of God’s love for us by the love we share with others. No life can be deemed truly successful unless we have made this peace with God.


So, have you been looking at success incorrectly? Have you been viewing success as something to be gained rather than something to be given. A life well lived is one dedicated, not to the pursuit of others’ admiration, but to the enhancement of their lives.

One thought on “The real meaning of success

  1. Success is one of those words that mean different things to different people and even to the same people at different times in their lives. When I was raising my 3 teenagers by myself, I would get excited if my bills were paid, our cupboards were full of food and my car was full of gas. (There was never a month where I didn’t meet that goal but it was exciting every time). Now knowing my kids are grown up, living responsible lives, raising responsible kids of their own – I take that as a win.
    My success may seem puny to many but I look at some of our wealthy, famous, powerful politicians and I have a hard time seeing the success there.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s