Why You Need to Redefine Your Idea of Success

After four years of engineering school, I was primed and ready by the schooling system to become a corporate drone. I was following the supposed “magic formula” for success—go to school, get a good job, buy lots of material things, save some money, and then retire.

This seemed pretty much par for the course if I wanted to be “successful” and feel like I’d “made it.” And this formula was drilled into my head for so many years, I had no idea that there were other options—other ways to be successful—until I got a glimpse inside the life of an entrepreneur. 

The summer after college, I had a month to kill before my corporate job began. Instead of watching Law & Order reruns nonstop (tempting), I filled the gap by interning with a local photographer. Little did I know at the time, this particular photographer had a success plan different from anyone else that I’d ever met … and one that I found to be extraordinary…

This guy worked for eleven months out of the year doing something he was passionate about (i.e. photography), and then took an entire month off for his other passion—SURFING. Every year, he’d clear all the appointments from his calendar and hop on a plane to Peru to surf and recharge.

I was amazed. This photographer defied ALL my previous ideas of success—no 9-to-5 job, no paycheck, no 401k, extended time off—but he seemed happy, creative, and, well…successful.

Although I couldn’t put my finger on it until years later, what I really liked about this guy was that he didn’t select society’s default setting for “success” and build his life around it. Nor did he aimlessly daydream of what his life “could be,” cross his fingers, and hope it would all work out. Instead, he’d intentionally designed a life of passion and freedom for himself by being:

  1. Decisive about what he wanted
  2. Deliberate about making it happen

For me, I didn’t want to accept the default setting either, but it was too late. My internship ended and I moved away to start my first corporate job. BUT my experience that summer planted a tiny seed of an idea in my head that there was another way to live life and be successful—one that didn’t involve being a corporate drone or compromising my well-being for a paycheck. But it would take another 3 years for that seed to bloom and for me to quit my job and start my own business.

Fast forward to 2015…

In January of this year, I’d been self-employed for about 7 years. On one hand, I felt like jumping for joy to celebrate 7 awesome years of 9-to-5 freedom, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel successful.

What gives? My definition of success had done a 180 since I’d quit my day job. No longer was I following the default school-job-things-money-retire “formula” for success that I’d been taught. Sure, there’s nothing innately wrong with that formula, but I’d gotten comfortable with the fact that it simply wasn’t a good definition for me. But new definition of success or not, I didn’t feel successful.

The truth was, I had great clients and was making money doing what I loved, but something wasn’t clicking. I felt stressed out and off track.

And what happens when coaches get stressed, stuck, or feel off track? We hire other coaches, obviously.

So I did just that. I found myself a coach to work with and began sharing my not-feeling-successful-despite-all-the-good-things-that-are-happening dilemma. I thought this one would be a tough nut to crack, so I was ready to dive deep.

During our first session, my coach asked me, “What’s your definition of success?”

“I got this,” I thought. I’ve been ready for this question for 7 freakin’ years, baby. So I began to describe my Marie-Forleo-meets-Jon-Acuff version of success that I’d designed in my mind. New York Times bestseller combined with multi-millionaire founder of an online course. Touring the country signing books, helping tons of people, being a high-paid speaker with a big fan base, and having perfect shiny hair. Oh yeah. That’s true success.

Next question from my coach, “Is that what you really want?”

I blinked, suddenly stunned. “Yes! Yes!” my brain was shouting. “That’s the only way to have true success when you’re a coach!” But my heart was disagreeing.

“No. No, I don’t think I do really want all that,” I responded with a sigh.

“Then I think you need to redefine your version of success again.”

He was right and I knew it. Yet again, I’d falsely based my version of success on what I thought success “should” look like…just like I’d done back in college. And the reasons I was feeling stressed and stuck were three-fold:

  1. I was failing at someone else’s version of success (which just plain sucks)
  2. I was striving for a version of success that I didn’t truly want deep-down (so why would I ever do what it takes to get there?)
  3. I always felt like there was a huge gap in-between my current situation and my idea of success (and that gap filled with stress and overwhelm)

The following week, I sat down with a pen and piece of paper and redefined my idea of success for the second big time. What did I really want out of this life? What would make me truly happy?

When I finished, what I found was that I wasn’t that far off of my new version of success. In fact, I was 75% there. Suddenly, the huge gap that I’d felt for so long began to close up, taking the stress and overwhelm with it.

What’s Your Definition of Success?

As a business owner, it’s essential to define your own unique version of success so that you can stay on-track towards achieving what you REALLY want, not what you think you should want. This will greatly lessen your stress level, keep you motivated and engaged, and make life as an entrepreneur a whole lot easier.

Tucker Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, said, “The only way to live life is to do the things that you want to do and be the person that you want to be no matter who that is or what that is or how you have to do it. That’s the only way to you can be genuinely happy.”

I’m guessing you don’t fit into the school-job-things-money-retire success definition anymore. And even though Marie Forleo’s got a sweet-ass gig and really shiny hair, perhaps that version of success is just not quite for you either…so what DO you want?

Start your success planning process by mapping out what’s important to you—What do you want to do? To have? To see? To become? To learn? To accomplish?

Here are a few questions to consider to get you started on your new version of success:

  • Where do you want to work? From home? In an office? Coffee shop?
  • How much money do you want to make?
  • What type of clients do you want to work with?
  • What type of work do you want to spend the majority of your time on (e.g. writing? networking? working directly with clients?)
  • Do you want to work around other people or would you rather work alone?
  • How many hours a week do you want to work?
  • What days of the week do you want to work?
  • What do you want to do during your non-working hours?
  • Do you like to get up early? Or sleep late?
  • How do you want family/friend time to play a role in your day-to-day life?
  • Are there any hobbies you’d like to spend your time on?
  • Do you want to travel? Locally? Around the country? Overseas?
  • Do you want to eat out every day or cook for yourself?
  • How often do you want to take vacations? To where?
  • How much social interaction do you want?

Things to keep in mind:

#1: Make it personal

This is your ideal life—don’t censor yourself as you write down the answers to these questions. But don’t just start randomly making stuff up either. This is what you’re going to make happen, so you need to get clear on what you really want and what’s important to you.

#2: Get a little crazy

Your friends should think you’re a bit crazy when you share your version of success with them—because it’s not going to be the standard version that they’re used to. So now isn’t the time to think small or follow the rules you’ve been taught previously. Forget being practical, playing it safe, and coloring inside the lines. Screw all that.

Stop considering what’s “practical” or “logical” and start envisioning what’s POSSIBLE. Envision your life exactly as you want it to be, not as you think it “might,” “should,” or “could” be.

#3: This is not an escape plan

As you map out your ideal version of success, consider this: Are you moving towards what you really want or merely trying to escape what you don’t want? There’s a big difference.

So with every decision that you make and every action that you take from this point forward, deliberately start moving towards what you want. Design an incredible life for yourself and then go after it.

#4: Enjoy the journey

Earl Nightingale said, “We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we’ve established for ourselves.”

Yes, it’s essential to define your version of success, but it’s also important to enjoy the journey as you get there (and not let the gap between where you are now and where you want to be fill up with stress and overwhelm).

If you’re going to succeed at becoming a thriving, energized, full-time business owner, it all starts with your own unique version of success.

You come first. Build your business around what you want your life to be and not the other way around. If you don’t, you’ll burn out from running a business that doesn’t match up with your ideals, or even worse, you’ll end up working nonstop and spinning your wheels.

You can create the life you want and live it on your terms if you start the process now by getting clear on what you want and then going after it. With any luck, you’ll probably realize you’re a lot closer to success than you thought, anyway.


Photo credit: Photo by Bernard Goldbach https://www.flickr.com/photos/topgold/ License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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