Success is a Continuum, Not a Destination

What qualifies as success? A great job, a big house, an expensive car, a stock portfolio? Many successful people have all of those things. But is this really the definition of success?  Merriam-Webster defines success as “a favorable or desired outcome” and “the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence.” But this definition seems shallow and incomplete. It implies extrinsic values rather than intrinsic values and places more emphasis on having than being. Is it what we have that makes us successful or is it who we are?

Arianna Huffington maintains that while we tend to think of success found in money and power, we often overlook the things that enable us to truly thrive.

“To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.”

Consider one of the wealthiest people on the planet: Bill Gates. Gates co-founded one of the world’s most valuable companies and as of May 2020 has a net worth of $105.6 billion. While many define his success by that fortune, others consider what he’s done with that fortune as his true success. With his wife Melinda, Bill Gates chairs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to audited statements from KPMG, it’s the largest private charity in the world with a $47 billion endowment. And the Gates are stepping up their activism as “catalysts of human promise.”

“We seek to unlock the possibility inside every individual. We see equal value in all lives. And we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. From the education of students in Chicago, to the health of a young mother in Nigeria, we are catalysts of human promise everywhere.”

If we believe the manifestation of success is how others see us – what looks good on a résumé or having the best that money can buy – the joy we experience will be short-lived because there will always be something bigger and better out there.

Success is not out there.  True success lies in the permission to dream and finding ways to make those dreams a reality. It’s not measured in net worth, but rather in the ability to share that success with others. The moment you stop defining success as what you dream of having and start defining success as what you dream of doing is the moment you’ll define what success means for you and the first step to actualize your highest aspirations.

Instead of defining success as reaching a finish line, think of success as doing something you love, work that leaves you feeling fulfilled, work that leaves the world a little better than you found it.  Dreams have no expiration date and success has no deadline. Success is a continuum, not a destination. Once you discover that success is really in the legacy you leave behind, the way people will remember you and your imprint on the world, only then will you see it as an evolution of purpose.

What is success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!

~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. The proposed topic is of relevance, the comments interesting and can offer food for thought and discussion.
    The concept of success is not universal, for some will be money, for others the fame, for others social recognition, for others to help one another, for others the principles of faith, for others the family, for others work, for others love, for others adventure, for other the sports, etc. Success is not the achievement of a goal stereotyped and defined by others but have a purpose, a goal, an ideal that has value for us, and for us only. I believe in the importance of engaging in achieving the success that really matters to us. One have to clearly understand your own concept of success (without following others and / or fashion) and the most important values; To lead a life as consistent as possible to one’s values and to its concept of success; to be glad with (little or so) that we have done (past), of what we are doing (present), and of what we are going to do (the future).
    I believe that the idea of success can be expressed as follows: Wen you reach a goal, immediately ask yourself what you can do better.

  2. Melissa, this was like a virtual hug for my eyes & brain! Especially at the start of this year, I’ve been overwhelmed with all the ads of “buy this to fix that” or “level up here and spend there”… while some of these resources and targeted ads can be helpful, it forgets that underneath our data points lies a human. We all have our own goals and metrics, but that feeling of “making it”? That can only come from within.

    Virtual hugs from MD, and thank you for sharing this — a good reminder we all need!

  3. Melissa, thank you for creating and sharing this perspective on success that speaks to what truly matters. Many of us have been conditioned to view success based on material things, to compare ourselves against “the Joneses” and to prioritize how others view us over what matters most to us.

    On my journey to seeing differently, I have had to unlearn my (former or learned) definition of success and to let go of all those external conditionings or influences to discover what success truly means to me. Success is personally meaningful. Success is directly related to your purpose as you so eloquently invite us to see. How you choose to soulfully express and live your purpose is an inside job, so why would our definition of success be otherwise?

    • Brian, I do love how you frame your “unlearning” process. It’s so easy just accept things the way they are because that’s how they’ve always been. The same with our mental models of the world. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to learn from you in seeing things differently and recognizing that, at times, we all underestimate what we have to share with others.

      “How you choose to soulfully express and live your purpose is an inside job, so why would our definition of success be otherwise?” – Brian Kelly

      Thank you, my friend!