Why Success is Failing Us

The popular definition of success is failing us. Here’s how to define it for yourself.

And how we can value ourselves more effectively.

Once upon a time, in an epoch before Twitter followers, annual salaries, KPIs and student grades, personal success was a matter of meaningful action and invaluable participation: a young hunter with extraordinary agility and prowess; an old crone with an uncanny knack for healing; a stoic leader with the strength of character to hold a community together through great challenge.

Through these early human millennia, success was intrinsically linked with contribution — and the value you added to your community, your family, or your tribe.

Of course, as our lives and mindsets have become more mechanized, so too has our concept of success. These days, the inherent value of personal contribution (and personal exceptionalism) is often overlooked. “Success” is only obtained if, and when, your talents and achievements can be quantified, and when they compare favorably to others’ performances and/or meet an accepted standard.

The modern definition of success is often solely reliant on superficial numbers and benchmarks: exam marks and school grades, KPIs, social media followers, viewer- or readership, money earned, money spent, votes gained, profit margin, or monetary value added. All of this ignores the immeasurable (yet often more profound) impact our personal contribution has on our family, our community and our world.

Of course, this move toward calculable success keeps things nice and tidy for the authorities, statisticians and those keeping score. But it completely misses the boat in terms of our actual value as human beings and the traits that have truly made humans succeed and flourish through the centuries.

The modern concept of success:

  • Encourages a focus on breadth and superficial accumulation, rather than depth and authenticity. Brief interactions with 50,000 twitter followers is considered more successful than an intimate relationship with three clients. A sprawling mansion full of loneliness and despair is considered more successful than a humble trailer brimming with love and laughter.
  • Devalues and belittles those whose daily contributions are impossible to calculate; ie. full-time parents, caregivers, the unemployed and retirees. Those who don’t earn or study often struggle to determine their personal worth and find it difficult to recognize and celebrate the value they add to society. Additionally, this mindset drives many parents to seek validation through the actions and achievements of their children — successes that can be measured numerically — and to compare and compete with other parents.
  • Reduces the opportunity to seek purpose, meaning and inspired action in daily activities. In many of life’s pursuits, we are given a set of numbers to attain or aspire to, and we are somehow supposed to be inspired by these meaningless digits. There is no purpose in the quest, or the result, and therefore most employees, students and citizens are inherently uninspired and disengaged.
  • Rewards conformity over contribution. Seeking to be validated in socially-acceptable ways, many people ignore their personal desires, intuition and talents in favor of accepted or ‘proven’ processes, methods and practices. Individuality is diluted and innovation is avoided for fear of perceived failure.
  • Perpetuates the illusion of control. Almost inevitably, the main indicators of modern success are entwined with the actions and decisions of others. If we are to meet our sales targets, become a best-selling author, secure that dream gig, garner the promotion, make millions off our investment … etc … we need to have the full support, agreement or cooperation of others. Sadly, we are conditioned to believe that we can control any situation; if we follow the right process, pull the right strings, behave the right way, say the right words, we will bring others onside and succeed in our quest. If we fail (we are told) it is because we didn’t try hard enough, or follow the right procedure. The concept of success based on external validation is deeply flawed in this regard; we may be in charge of our lives, but we are never, ever in control.
  • Ignores the most important qualities humans possess: cooperation, innovation and resilience. An employee’s ability to calm conflict and offer sound advice can easily be overlooked if they regularly miss their sales quota. An imaginative and inquisitive child may be counselled if they do not read or write to an ‘acceptable’ level. A courageous and hard-working single parent may not be widely appreciated if they cannot earn enough to rent their own home. Cooperation, innovation and resilience are the three most important characteristics in human evolution, and yet they are often overlooked and undervalued in modern society, for the simple reason that they cannot be easily quantified.
Nathan Anderson | Unsplash


The need for calculable success is ingrained in our society and fulfills a purpose in our ongoing need for societal structure. But it is time to acknowledge that there is more to life — more to the value of any human being — than simple numbers can express. If we can expand our concept of success and remember the importance of non-numerical contribution, we can inspire people in more innate, natural ways to be a valued part of their family, workplace and community.

Importantly, if we begin to celebrate the multitude of intangible successes in society, we offer everyone an opportunity to recognize the true value they offer the world, no matter how isolated or indefinable that contribution may be.

Questions for authentic success:

  • How many times did I genuinely smile today?
  • How many vulnerable and honest moments did I have today?
  • How and who did I inspire today?
  • How did I allow myself to be inspired?
  • What did I change about myself today (beliefs, perception, behavior)?
  • What did I do better today, than yesterday?
  • What can I forgive myself for today?
  • What can I forgive in another?
  • What action did I take today that honors my current dream/goal?
  • What have I done today that I can be proud of?

More Stories
How to Get Over Imposter Syndrome