Just as it seems there can be no absolute meaning to life other than what we individually give to it, there can be no absolute degree of success or failure carved for each of us in stone. I have been intrigued to hear from a multi-millionaire client who still regularly works late into the night as he attempts to achieve his own idea of financial freedom. I also have two friends who retired in their fifties after selling their house and buying a tiny yacht to live out the rest of their lives in South America on less retirement money than it costs to buy a new family car. In their words, they are finally living their dream.

We all decide, from our own values and interpretations, what failure and success mean to us personally. Both are learned concepts that we accept and adopt in the same way as concepts of good/bad, beautiful/ugly.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. One women’s success is another’s nightmare. Our definitions of success and failure also change with time and context. Since having kids, my highest measure of failure has been set by the amounts of time I spend away from my family. Previously, it was gauged by how much time I spent hanging on rock faces in exotic destinations.

If you speak to any person who has survived a terminal illness, you will also get an updated version of what success and failure looks like to them.

You may set your own standards by a gold medal, making a million dollars with the click of a button, being promoted to CEO, winning awards, selling a company or flying into space. Such outcomes are symbols of success in many cultures, and maybe worth attaining so long as they are for us and not to keep up with the Joneses.

After all, success by other people’s definition rarely adds up. Especially if the people we may be tempted to gauge our success and failure by have based their definitions upon the values of those who went before them and those before them.

If there was no one to pat you on the back, cheer for you, pay you, write about you, gossip about you, and you were doing what you do entirely for your own satisfaction and meaning, what would you do and how would you define your success?

Setting our own terms is also important for defining personal failure. If we accept the definitions of success or failure outside of our own making we are asking for trouble.

How many bright young things have failed to shine because their families, peers or teachers have planted within them visions of worst-case scenarios regarding what success and failure look like?

Parent: ‘Do you realize you have only a one-in-a-million chance of becoming a successful professional and that you’re better off getting a solid job at a bank?’

Child: ‘Why?’ 

Parent: ‘Because becoming a number-one-selling artist is unlikely, therefore anything less is undesirable.’ ‘Because doing what you love for ten years, though it means playing at weddings, pubs and parties isn’t good enough. Such activities would barely cover your modest outgoings and will never buy you the right to own the debt of a mortgage, shiny car and other life trappings. It matters little that you will do what you love every day.’ 

Sadly, the above is shortened from a real parent/child conversation.

If there was no one to put you down, boo on you, con you, criticize you, gossip about you, and you were doing what you do entirely for your own satisfaction and meaning, what would you do and how would you define success and failure?

Success and failure will always be whatever definition we accept them to be and the clearer we are on what is important to us, the better. Our goals, dreams and ambitions are more likely to provide satisfaction when they are self generated and sustained, rather than built on the hopes and opinions of others.

 ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.’ – Henry David Thoreau

But what stops most of us from going confidently in the direction of our dreams?

Or rather, what stops you?

How often are you fearful of failure and making mistakes, despite both being subjective experiences that you can define for yourself?

And what would you really go after in life if you were confident of your ability to redefine outcomes, on your terms rather than that of others?


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