Speaking of Success

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten suckered into watching, listening to, or reading several videos, podcasts, and articles in which the presenter or author promises to dispel common myths about success and tell us how he/she did it differently.

And many of them do start to deliver that message. They tell stories about how their first three businesses failed or how their first five manuscripts didn’t get published, but they never gave up. Sometimes they had to move home with their parents or try last-ditch efforts to save their businesses or projects, but they persevered. They talk about all the lessons they learned as they tried and failed and tried again, and often created a new and better way to do business. And usually they emphasis how they came to realize only in doing what we love do we truly achieve success. All that is well and good.

But in the end, the same thing happens every time. We discover that finally they did sell a million copies of a book or they did build a business they sold for millions of dollars or they did achieve celebrity. There seems to be an unspoken rule that the only people who are really allowed to talk publicly about alternate versions of “success” are the ones who have actually achieved the most time-honored, traditional, acceptable version of success, which is fame and fortune.

I get a little disappointed every time I realize I’ve been duped. I think about all the unsung heroes through the centuries, the housewives and country doctors and little-known artists who invented a new tool or process that improved our lives, but never achieved fame or fortune. I think about all the mom-and-pop businesses that operate in this country every day just scraping by, but filling an important place in their community. I think about all the hair stylists who double as therapists and the teachers who double as parents and I wonder why we can’t hear from them once in a while.

If you’re going to stand up there and tell me success means doing the work you love, then quit telling me how I’ll know when I’m truly successful. Only I get to decide what success looks like for me. Only I get to experience the real impact of my efforts. Only I get to say how much fame or fortune is enough for me.

One definition of success is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” Another is “the attainment of popularity or profit.” How come it’s mostly those who have achieved the latter version that we hear from?  If we continue to give the stage only to speakers who have achieved one type of success, our collective perception of success will never change in this country.

It’s time to really mean it when we say, “Success is doing what you love and doing it well.”

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