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Is Your Definition of Success Broken?

By Nina Ham

Do you have a working definition of success that fits for you, or has the word lost its meaning? Did it once have personal meaning, or was it never truly yours in the first place? Is success a dark cloud hovering over you, or a foggy place in your mind you'd rather not visit? And - attention, please! - is there a hidden cost to letting it remain broken?

Angela had consulted me because her graphic design business was producing lackluster results and her feelings about it were even more lackluster. During our first meeting I asked what yardstick she was using to measure her success. The question startled her. As I intended, it required her to stop and think about her definition of success, in the context of her business and beyond.

It quickly became evident that Angela's disappointing profit margin was the direct result of a business plan that no longer excited her. "I know I could make the business profitable again by doing the same kind of work I've been doing for years, but it bores me. I don't know whether I want profits or creative satisfaction as my measure of success."

As she came to see, disappointing profits, boredom, and uncertainty about future direction - these are common symptoms of a defunct definition of success.

So, is your definition of success broken? "How would I know?" you may ask. Good question. To answer it, you must know what you can expect from a vision of success that's working. Here are four pointers:

  1. Your success vision feeds the fire in your belly. It infuses passion and inspiration into your endeavors and guides you in taking risks and making sacrifices. When you're on your success path, you believe in what you're doing and you're also challenging yourself to do it or be it better.

  2. Your success vision may make you blush. You should be proud - and possibly shy - about stating it. It's bold, at least one size larger than how you currently think of yourself. It's ahead of you, perhaps a place you want to reach or a way of being you aspire to.

  3. Your success vision is down-to-earth. It's precise and practical. It's concrete enough to serve as a compass, guiding you through decisions and times of transition.

  4. Your success vision will blow the whistle on a wrong turn. It can alert you to "no moments," choices or expectations you must say "no" to in order to stay on your success path.
OK. So what makes a definition of success broken? Four common misconceptions that lie behind a broken success vision:
  1. It isn't yours - maybe it never was, maybe it was but no longer is. Does it truly reflect your values, or have you imported it, perhaps unknowingly, from family or social expectations? When this is the case, whatever degree of success is achieved is often accompanied by a feeling of detachment or diffidence, as though it's being viewed from the outside in.

  2. It isn't you. Does it mirror you accurately? Is it hooked up to talents, skills and interests that represent you, as you know yourself?

  3. It's obsolete. Maybe it isn't current - you've matured, and the circumstances and priorities of your life have changed. We commonly overlook the fact that our vision of success must change as we change. Look at Bill Gates. Clearly for much of the first half of his life his vision of success focused on improving the world of computers. On turning 50, his focus shifts to improving world hunger and disease.

  4. It's shrouded in fog. The idea of success in relation to oneself is often muddied by confusion, self-doubt, or aversion to competitive values and practices that we believe are required for success. It's often necessary to deconstruct these inherited connotations before you can mine your personal beliefs and experience and begin to articulate and claim a definition that fits for you.
You're now in a position to assess whether you're tapping the multi-megawatts of personal power available to you from a definition of success - that path or destination that represents your most precious goals and aspirations - that truly fits you. Hold it up to three questions: Is it big enough and bold enough to inspire you? Is it specific enough and practical enough to guide you? Does it say no to wrong steps? If so, the time and energy you invest to create a personally compelling success vision is time well invested. I hope you're inspired to begin!
Nina Ham, certified business and career coach and licensed psychotherapist, is Principal of Success from the Inside Out. Her company provides coaching services to midlife women in career transition or to those preparing to move from salaried employment to solo.
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