Although you may not be able to define it at this moment, the one essential step in achieving success is knowing what success means TO YOU. The outside world generally defines success in measurable, material terms: money, power, status, influence. For many in 21st century America, perhaps even the majority, success means dollars in the bank, as those dollars can provide a sense of security, a measure of power, or the ability to impact others. But dollars in and of themselves provide none of those things. They are a means to other ends. Dictionary.com gives what is to me an unjustifiably limiting definition of success as “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like”: all of those attainments being quantifiable. Another definition is: “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors”, which falls short because it views success as an end point. It is not. Success should ideally be continuous, or at least frequent, and need not be quantifiable. Rather, success is the ability or capacity to activate in one’s outer world the passions and values that matter most in the inner world.
Some (lucky) people have an early sense for what are their deepest passions. For these people when their work is detached from or unrelated to those passions it is easy to feel a sense of career failure. That can be a mistake. Work that offers the flexibility or the income to pursue passionate interests, provided that the work is not stultifying, can be part of an overall highly successful life. For example, a job that is only moderately engaging could be judged an essential part of a successful life mosaic if it allows for deep engagement with family, or with an artistic pursuit like art, music, acting or writing, fields in which it is notoriously hard to make a living.
I’m not advocating that you be satisfied with work that doesn’t resonate with your soul. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve failed because it doesn’t. That kind of thinking can inhibit your search for more deeply meaningful work because it could lead you to question your worth. It could also erect barriers to doing the kind of hard work necessary to activate passion (see below).
For many other people there is no long-standing passion, and what they might become passionate about is a mystery. It turns out that passion more often than not emerges as expertise deepens, and it also turns out that deepening expertise requires a lot of hard work. Two excellent books that explain how this works are Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”
What abouit values? These can be difficult to specify, although all of us possess them. To gain a better understanding of your values and to how well attuned you are to meaningfulness in your life, I recommend that you go to www.authentichappiness.organd take the 10 question Meaning in Life questionnaire. This site also contains other valuable free questionnaires, measuring such vital life aspects as overall happiness, work-life satisfaction, and character strengths. These tests are free, all you have to do is register with the site (from which I’ve thankfully never received an unsolicited e-mail).
If you are still unsure about your values and what gives your life meaning I definitely recommend working with a professional like myself, who combines an understanding of the true meaning of success with the ability to ask the kinds of questions that elicit the information necessary to define it for you. No matter what, though, remember that success needs to be a reflection of your individuality rather than a socially-constructed consensus about superficial measurements of achievement.