Defining Success to Avoid Burnout

How you define success can either lead you toward or away from burnout.

Little child girl plays superhero. Child on the background of sunset sky. Girl power concept
Little child girl plays superhero. Child on the background of sunset sky. Girl power concept

Who do you believe is successful?  Whose success would you most like to model?  The first question may be hard, but the second one is harder.  Most people could point to successful people – actors, presidents, captains of industry, startup entrepreneurial successes, etc. – but that’s not an answer about your beliefs or what success looks like for you.  It’s a generic statement and an ability to reflect what society says success is.  The harder question is what success means to you.  If you can’t define clearly what success means to you, you may find that you end up burned out instead of successful.

Success Measures

For some, money is how they measure success.  While many people will tell you that money doesn’t buy happiness – and it’s true – that doesn’t mean some measure of success can’t be found in making money.  (By the way, money will make you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease of happiness, if you do it right.)  Money is likely to be an aspect of the way you want to measure your success – however, it’s probably not the only measure.

Fame is another candidate for a success measure, but it’s fickle.  One moment, you’re on a nationally syndicated television show, and the next, you’re scraping by and trying to figure out how to make a living.  Some icons of fame have sustained their popularity – but very, very few.  Many of the candid interviews with famous people have them lamenting the stalkers, the paparazzi, or the industry for making them conform instead of being allowed to be themselves.

Happiness is a great success measure, except few people know how to achieve it.  We are, in fact, lousy at predicting the things that will bring us happiness and lasting joy.  So, while it’s great in concept, we often marvel at the people we see who are happy but whose happiness we can find no way to replicate.  Often, we find reasons why the life they have – that they’re happy with – isn’t one we’d like to lead.

The Moving Goal

Without a specific, targeted measure of success, we’re likely to move the goal post.  Money is easy.  If you’re like most people, you want to make just a little more money to be happy.  The problem is that when you get that next raise or that little bit more money, you’ll want just a bit more.  Think about how much money you wanted to make when you first got out of school.  You’re likely making much more than that now – and are still looking to make more, just like the rest of us.

Fame can follow a similar trajectory.  If you have a hundred followers, you’d love a thousand.  If you have a thousand, you’d love to have ten thousand.  If you’ve got ten thousand followers, you’d love to have a hundred thousand.  You’re never famous enough.  There’s always someone more famous than you and some opportunity that wasn’t offered to you – no matter what the source of your fame is.

The thing we’ve got to do is nail down what we personally mean by success, so we can prevent burnout.

Defining Burnout

Burnout is typically defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  The key to burnout is the feelings of inefficacy – that there is no way to get free from your current situation.  It leads to exhaustion and the question of why you’re bothering to try.  It also leads to cynicism, because people are cynical about the things they can’t change.

The problem with failing to define what success means is we keep moving those goals and therefore never reach them.  We feel like we’re a failure or simply not able to get to our goals, because we never see ourselves achieving our goals.

Defining Success and Preventing Burnout

When you can define what success means to you in clear and concrete terms, you’ll give yourself something to measure and a way to show that you are indeed making progress, and that will help to prevent burnout.

When you’re defining what success looks like, I’d encourage you to look not at your finances or the neighborhood you live in but instead about how you spend your time.

  • Do you get the choice of what to do – or do you have to do things to make money, support an appearance, or remain in good social graces?
  • How much do you get to do the things you enjoy?
  • How are you impacting others and improving their lives?

If you can answer these questions – and adjust your expectations as situations change – you may find that you’re already on your way to success.

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