person writing
Shutterstock

According to Merriam-Webster’s definition of “success,” anyone who’s rich, respected, or famous is successful.

Some people will read that and enthusiastically shake their heads yes—others will roll their eyes. Neither group is right or wrong; the truth is that the words means a lot of different things to different people.

In fact, as part of a recent Readdress Success campaign, Strayer University petitioned Merriam-Webster to change the official definition.

The proposed replacement? “Happiness derived from good relationships and achieving personal goals.”

I like this definition way better—it still encompasses the above description (your personal goals can include making lots of money!), but also includes people who think more outside of the box.

And it’s inspired me to develop three strategies for writing your own definition, for understanding how you define success.


1. Look at Your Proudest Achievements

Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the five accomplishments you’re proudest of.

Maybe that’s, “Paid off my student loans in five years,” “Taught myself how to code,” or “Left my job and started freelancing full-time.”

Note that these don’t have to be your “biggest” accomplishments, but rather the ones you feel most positively about. Sure, everyone’s impressed that you graduated from a top-tier school, but you might be prouder that you beat your fear of heights or moved to a new city.

After you’ve got five accomplishments, try to identify a common thread or two. Did all of your accomplishments require courage? Selflessness? Persistence? Intelligence? Caring?

The common themes tell you what defines your long-term vision of success. For example, my common theme was “creativity”—when I figure out an unexpected or innovative way of solving a problem, I feel really successful.


2. Challenge Your Assumptions

On the other side of the paper, make a list of things that have proved to be less satisfying than you’d thought they be.

I’ll give you one of mine. For years, I’ve coveted a pair of heels by a particular designer. I decided that, after I hit a certain freelance writing milestone, I’d buy the shoes.

Well, I’m still very proud of reaching the milestone—but wearing them doesn’t give me the thrill I thought it would.

By acknowledging the “successes” that didn’t make you happy, you can start to replace society’s definitions with your own.


3. Create Levels of Success

Success usually implies a goal that took weeks, months, or even years to make happen.

However, part of defining your own vision of the word means identifying what it would mean in the next couple days, hours, or even minutes.

I’ve implemented this concept by adding a new section to my to-do list called “real success.” For example, one item was “Grab lunch with a friend.” Another was “Practice interview answers for 15 minutes.”

Both of these goals helped me toward two bigger versions of success: “Achieve work-life balance” and “Get a job I absolutely love.”

Before this, I wouldn’t consider myself successful until I’d made those ultimate goals come true. But by reframing progress itself as success, I felt much more accomplished and proud.


“Define your own success” is one of those goals that sounds awesome but is hard to implement. However, these three strategies have really helped me develop a personalized definition that works better for me. What’s yours? Let me know on Twitter!