If you’re going to compete you might as well know what you’re competing for. “Success,” of course. And success is…?

Here are some ways that people define success:

Money. Fame. Beauty. Survival. Long life. Freedom. Free time. Children.
Marriage. Possessions. Piety. Serenity. High test scores. Being first. Being well-adjusted.
Being loved. Loving. Working. Achieving a goal. Setting a record. Overcoming fear.
Overcoming handicaps. Great effort. Great decisions. Great results. The journey. Applause. Inner satisfaction. Health. Time to relax. Parties!

Success involves tradeoffs. For instance, achieving great works and taking time to relax can be in conflict. For another instance, you probably will find it difficult to pursue everything. You’ve got to choose what you really want.

Success implies measurement. Is it success to score 500 (on a scale of 200 to 800) on the verbal portion of the SAT? Maybe yes for the immigrant who didn’t speak English six months ago. Maybe no for the child of sixth-generation English professors who piped the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Marx (Groucho) into the crib.

Success requires value judgments. There is no universally “right” way to measure success. Cultures differ dramatically in how they define success; so do individuals within a culture; so do people with thick or thin bank accounts and medical records. However, if you don’t define success for yourself, then you will use someone else’s definition and you will find it difficult to know when (or if) you have achieved it.

Success is a moving target. What broke your heart or made your day at 4 is inconsequential at 40. What breaks your heart or makes your day at 40 was incomprehensible at 20. And I can report that the view from my current number is not the same as it was at 40.

Success means thinking for yourself. Not many small children announce that they can hardly wait to grow up and fulfill society’s expectations of them. They don’t aspire to fit into a stereotype. They see themselves as budding astronauts, teachers, fire fighters, pilots, athletes, movie stars, and presidents (or their culture’s equivalents). Interesting: small children don’t aim to deny success to others.

You might find it personally profitable to answer these questions for yourself.

  • How do you define success?
  • Who tells you if you have achieved success?
  • Does your definition require being better or doing better than other people?
  • If you are not successful according to your definition, are you a failure?
  • Would you want the people you love to use your definition of success?

Before you embark on competing better, you need to know when you’ve won. This is not a matter of philosophy; it has broad implications for competing itself.

Yes, those questions are a quiz. You grade it.

The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistic and self-complacent is erroneous; on the contrary it makes them, for the most part, humble, tolerant, and kind.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

A rich man eats when he wishes / A poor man, whenever he can.
“Rich Man, Poor Man”, words and music by Peter Yarrow (1938-) and Peter Zimmel (?)

This essay is adapted from Nice Start: Questions Only You Can Answer to Create the Life Only You Can Live.

About the author  ⁄ Mark Chussil

MARK CHUSSIL is founder & CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc., and, with Benjamin Gilad, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He has conducted business war games, built custom strategy simulators, and taught workshops on strategic thinking for dozens of Fortune 500 companies on six continents, resulting in billions of dollars made or saved.

A pioneer in quantitative business war games and a highly rated speaker, he has 35 years of experience in competitive strategy. One of his simulation technologies has won a patent; a patent is pending on another. He has written three books, chapters for five others, and numerous articles.

He has been quoted in Fast Company, Harvard Management Update, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He received the Fellows Award from the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society in 2013. He earned his MBA at Harvard University and his BA at Yale University.


  • Reply
    July 16, 2013

    I think of success as achieving that which you set out to achieve. This may seem a bit circular but it’s subtly differentiating between happen-chance vs purposefulness. It’s having the predefined purpose in activity which defines and enables the recognition of any notion of achievement.

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