Defining success

What is success? Is it getting everything you want? Being rich? Having safe access to water? Getting married? Getting divorced? Having an education? Having the fastest cars in the world? Success can be defined differently for everyone, because its embodiment consists of the values and beliefs of the beholder.

According to Merriam-Webster, it can be defined as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.

Strayer University, based in the United States, is attempting to change the definition of success. They are petitioning Marriam-Webster to change the definition so something that StrayerU believes is more wholesome and representative of success for Americans. According to a report, Strayer found that “90% of Americans associate success with happiness rather than” the definition provided by Merriam-Webster. Strayer’s new proposed definition is “happiness derived from good relationships, and achieving personal goals.” There are parts of this that bother me, quite a bit.

To support their campaign, they made a poignant video called “You’re More Successful Than You Realize (A Social Experiment)” that has been circulating on social media:

Essentially, they ask a few people to rate their levels of success on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being low and 10 being high. Each person’s ratings are shown to the viewers.

Although most of the subjects rate themselves average or above average (8+), there is one young woman who, with tears in her eyes, scribbles a ‘4’ on her board. She thinks her level of success is 4. “It’s really hard to feel successful when a lot of things are variables in your life,” she says.

After all the subjects are done rating themselves, their loved ones are asked to rate them as well. Every loved one (son, boyfriend, wife, etc.) gives their partner a 10.

A man (presumably romantic partner or close friend) says about the woman who gave herself a success rating of 4: “What do I think about her pursuing her dreams? I support it. Fully. I think she’s one of the most talented girls I’ve ever met.” His confidence in her is evident in the look in his eyes, even though that same confidence in herself is not present in her eyes when she speaks to the viewers.

So what really is it about this video that goes to change the definition of success? People are talking about how they’ve overcome hurdles in life, whatever they may be. For example, one of the subjects is a single mother. She raised a son on her own, and to her, that was an achievement. Her son also considers this an achievement; he respects and admires his mother “because she has to be the father figure also” since his father has not been around. He seems proud of his mother in the same way that the man in the previous example was proud of his partner.

When the loved ones rate the success of the subjects, I think they are rating their potential. I have certain people in my life that may not be “flying high” or “living in a hall of fame” but they are honest, dedicated, hard-working people with goals and dreams and ambitions that I have no doubt they will achieve in their life. If I was asked to rate their potential, I would rate them a 10, hands-down. I would not be rating how wealthy, respectable or famous they are (as per Merriam-Webster’s definition of success), and nor would I be rating their happiness, their relationships (as per Strayer University’s revised definition of success). As a second party, I would be rating their potential. Not their success.

So this brings us back to the question about what success actually is…

What is wrong with Merriam-Webster’s definition of success? Is it that it’s too ambitious, or too materialistic, or too unreasonable? Is it unfair? What is wrong? I think the problem with Merriam-Webster’s definition of success is not that it is too ambitious or materialistic or unreasonable or unfair. I think the problem is that it’s too narrow. Strayer University is on the right track with one segment of their definition, and that is the idea of achieving goals.

For someone who is flunking all their high school classes, studying and acing tests to pass the classes would be an example of success. Alternatively, a post-secondary student with a high GPA, aiming to achieve a 178 on their LSAT score and studying day in and day out to get that score, is still an example of success. The examples do not have much in common. They are different people, from different backgrounds, and different walks of life. What they do have in common, though, is that they set a goal for themselves, and they succeeded at achieving it. Subsequently, that may make those people feel happy or accomplished or even elated, but the emotional component is not a direct input into the achievement of that success; rather, it is an output, a variable output. If you achieve your goals, it’s likely that you’ll be happy. But it is that act of the achievement of the goal you set for yourself that proves as the empirical outcome that can be defined as success.

Strayer University produced another video called “Most Likely to Succeed: Lauren.” It is about a young woman who was bright and ambitious, and wanted to go to college. After her father passed away, her family, including her twin sister, two brothers, and mother, were barely making ends meet to survive. During high school, Lauren started working to earn a living and support her family. She did this because it was important to her family, and in turn, important to her. She gave up her college dream, at least for the time being. Strayer surprised her with a full scholarship for her undergraduate degree at the University, and when she heard this news, she was ecstatic. In my view, maybe she was not happy because someone gave her money. It is not as simple and materialistic as that. She was happy because someone helped her get one step closer to her goal of going to college. That help came in the form of money, as she needed it to be. But this helped her get one step closer to achieving her goal, and one step closer to success. That anticipation of success is what made her happy. Of having the opportunity to at least try and be successful (in her own eyes, by setting her own goal about college).

Money isn’t everything, like they say, but in a society where we have to pay for things like our education (post-secondary and beyond), money serves as a step ladder to success in saying it helps deliver a person the basic facilities, tools, and resources they need in order to achieve their goals and dreams, even if their goals and dreams are the farthest thing away from materialistic.

So should Merriam-Webster change their definition of success? Is the Strayer University definition of success more accurate? I’d say yes and no to both questions.

In my opinion, success should be defined as the achievement of a goal. Everyone’s goals are different, therefore everyone’s successes are different. We should not be held by society or popular opinion to a particular image of success that may include wealth, respect, and fame, as captured in the definition by Merriam-Webster, yet we should also not confine success to individual happiness and emotions and outlook. Success should ideally be characterized by a person setting and achieving their goals, with the context and content of which is to be decided by each individual himself. Defining success is different for each person.

For more info, check out Strayer University’s “Change The Definition of Success” campaign website.

How do you define success? How successful do you think you are?

There is no need to compare yourself to the dictionary definition of success, or Strayer University’s definition of success, or society’s definition of success.

Set a goal. Make a plan. Trust yourself. Put in the work.

And remember:

Quote by Jon Acuff, retrieved from
Quote by Jon Acuff, retrieved from



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s