“What’s your number?” One executive asks another, engaging in the not-so-subtle competition of whose is bigger. I am a woman so I don’t get asked this question very often. Rather, it’s about my children. “How [successful] are your kids?” That’s the prototypical question for moms. The list goes on and on depending on who and where you are in life—grandchildren, job title, cars, jewelry, sports, sexual conquests, you name it.
Social Comparison Theory suggests that we compare ourselves to others to evaluate ourselves. That sounds like a reasonable goal, but it often turns into a competition to allow us to feel good about ourselves. We strive for self enhancement by “one upping”—saying that we’ve done something better than the other person. It can be a faster car, a bigger house, a higher salary, or a kid in a better college. The SNL character, Penelope, provides an exaggerated example, which is extremely funny to watch.
What are you measuring?
The point is not necessarily how you measure on these comparisons, but what measures you are using. More precisely, whose measures are you using? Yours? Theirs? Society’s? Your parent’s? If you’re like most of us, you find yourself getting tricked into being measured on someone else’s scale.
I was in a meeting to plan the next Berrett-Koehler Marketing Workshop and we grappled with the question of what it means to be a successful author. Is it the number of books sold? The amount of money made from book sales? The quantity of business generated as a result of writing the book? The impact made on society from the book’s message? Fame? Or simply the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of writing a book? It really depends on what the author defines as success (which may be different from the publisher’s definition).
How do you define success?
In the end, success boils down to how you define it. As we progress through life, we tend to realize that other people’s definitions of success don’t necessarily resonate with our own ideals. Laura Garnett asked several successful CEOs to state their definitions of success in a recent article in Inc. They vary widely and include such things as accomplishments, impact on the world, happiness, family, helping others, balance, fulfillment, and legacy. What is your definition of success?
Here are four questions to ask yourself to help you define success in your own terms.
- What are your core values? What do you need to do to be true to them?
- What’s important in your life?
- What legacy would you like to leave?
- When you are 90 and looking back on your life what would you like to say? What would you regret not having done?
I’d love to hear what you define as success and other questions you ask yourself to come to your definition.