Reimagining success: rejecting fame and fortune

Why it's time to redefine what success means and consider what's really important in our lives

When I left high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”.

I remembered this only recently as I was preparing a talk to students at that same school. It’s now 17 years later, which means that I am exactly double the age that I was when I was studying there and double the age of the students I was talking to.


So, the million-dollar question:

Have I succeeded?

Is ‘success’ something that you should have achieved by the age of 34? What did my fellow students expect of me when they nominated me for “most likely to succeed”? Would they be surprised or disappointed if they saw me here today? Will I ever achieve the ‘success’ that my younger self seemingly promised the world?

I’ve become fascinated by these types of questions in recent years. And I’m obviously not alone.

On Google, “how to be successful” gives 60 million results. On YouTube, I find 25.9 million videos. On Amazon (UK) I get more than 360,000 books on the topic.

What is it that these people around the world are looking to achieve as they search for the answer to ‘how to be successful’?

What is ‘success’?

A definition, by definition, leads you to a dictionary and that’s as good a place as any to start. Another quick Google gives me the following:

1 The accomplishment of an aim or purpose

1.1 The attainment of fame, wealth or social status

1.2 A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

Taking the first part of this definition, “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”, it’s clear that you first need to define that “aim or purpose”. In the second part, you find that the purpose is narrowed down to “the attainment of fame, wealth or social status”.

But is this really what ‘success’ means?

It is all about fame, wealth and social status? Is it about getting a promotion and having that prestigious job title, having a six-figure salary, buying a big house and an expensive car? Or, in a more modern version of this, is it about launching your own million-dollar business and travelling the world as a thought leader and bestselling author?

In order for a goal to be meaningful, and for you to be committed to achieving that goal, there needs be some intrinsic motivation. It’s not enough to have superficial ideals imposed externally – from society, from TV, or wherever those images are coming from.

You’ll need to define what your “aim or purpose’ is.

If you don’t decide it for yourself, you’ll simply continue on that conveyor belt you’re on and end up somewhere you don’t really want to be. You’ll be letting other people decide for you. Will you get that “fame, wealth or social status”? Maybe. Probably not, if you’re honest with yourself. And, if you do, I would hazard a guess that it won’t leave you feeling particularly happy or fulfilled.

So what is your aim? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals in life?

And, when I say life, I mean LIFE.

The traditional definition of success tends to be restricted to the work domain. But that’s a very limited view, one that assumes that your career or business is your sole focus in life.

It’s definitely a big part of your life – in terms of the number of hours you spend working as well as the time and energy you invest in thinking about your job and your career. The money you earn is also what makes a lot of other things in your life possible. But is it the only important part of your life?

You need to take a broader view of what success means to you.

So how do you do find that overall ‘purpose’?

Well, one exercise that’s fun to do is the ‘rocking chair’ scenario: Imagine that you’re sitting in that rocking chair in a retirement home, you’re 100 years old, and you’re looking back over your life. Ask yourself what needs to have happened for you to feel satisfied, to feel: “Yep, I’ve done everything I wanted to do, I have no regrets, I’m completely content. My life has been SUCCESSFUL”.

A more visual way of imagining your purpose is to put together a vision board: Grab a bunch of different magazines, flip through them and cut out the images that call out to you, that resonate for whatever reason. Stick them onto a board for a visual representation of the feelings and experiences that you want to create in your life. 

And when you’re imagining this purpose in your life, this success, remember to take that broad view. Think about different areas of your life. You can slice this up in different ways, and I’d encourage you to come up with your own building blocks. In my view, there are at least five areas to consider:

LIVE – wellness and wellbeing
LOVE – relationships and romance
LEARN – development and growth
LEAD – career and impact
LAUGH – fun and spontaneity

Considering each of these five areas of your life, looking at where you are today and what your goal(s) would be in each area, will give you a much broader view of success and one that is likely to bring a lot more balance, fulfilment and, ultimately, happiness in your life.

Now back to that original question: Have I succeeded?

Looking back at my yearbook accolade, the label of being “most likely to succeed”, you’d have to ask those other students what their expectations were and whether I’ve lived up to them. Did they expect me to achieve fame, wealth or social status? If so, I can only apologise for being such a disappointment. (Although, hey, I’m still young!)

For me personally, that narrow definition simply doesn’t do it for me. I’m setting goals, and working towards them, in those different areas of my life, as I reimagine what success looks like for me. It’s not static, and the definition evolves as I grow and my situation changes. But that’s also the point:

Success isn’t something you work towards as an end goal and then, tada, you’re done!

It’s an ongoing process, a journey, a rollercoaster through the ups and downs of different areas of your life and different wants and desires that bubble up to the surface.

And that’s a whole lot more interesting than all that fame and wealth, don’t you agree?

If you’d like to reimagine success in a broader sense across different areas of your life, download my little ebook with more details on the 5L model and a quiz to help you assess where you are today and where you might want to focus more going forward: Get the success audit >>

Could you take a moment to help me?

I’m collecting responses to a simple survey to find out what ‘success’ means for different people. It only takes a couple of minutes, you can answer it here >> 

Thanks so much!

– Anna

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