Success: What We Have or Who We Are?

Everyone desires success in one form or another. Some just dream about it, while others go after it with everything they’ve got. An important title, a fancy house, an expensive car, a diversified portfolio? Many successful people have all of those things. But what is success… really?

Many people chase big career titles, lots of money, or elite social status — yet don’t feel successful when they get them. If you relate, don’t feel bad. I submit that it’s not entirely your fault.  This monochrome version of success is something that’s been fed to us from childhood through films, magazines, and social media. Even our education system inculcates the idea that success is determined by degrees. If we buy into it, names like Ansel Adams, Steven Spielberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates would not qualify as “successful.”

Merriam-Webster defines success as “a favorable or desired outcome” and “the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence.” But this definition implies extrinsic values rather than intrinsic values. The emphasis is placed on how others see us rather than how we see ourselves.

Is it what we have that makes us successful or who we are?

Consider Bill Gates, one of the wealthiest people on the planet. Gates co-founded one of the world’s most valuable companies on the planet and as of May 2022 has a net worth of $105 billion. While many define his success by that fortune, perhaps consider what he’s done with that fortune as his true success. Created with his wife Melinda, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private philanthropic foundation in the world. Since its founding in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has distributed over $60 billion to causes tied to eradicating diseases and reducing poverty and inequity around the world.

Regardless of how you feel about the political backdrop, it’s hard to deny the impact they have had 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 what the world sees in 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 isn’t out there. Instead of defining success as something you get, think of it as getting to do something you love, rewarding work that makes a positive impact on others, work that leaves the world a little better than you found it.

Defining success is slippery because success looks and feels different for each of us. It’s not a destination but rather an ever-evolving journey. Perhaps on that journey, our definition changes and grows with us. If you are lucky enough to measure success in the legacy you leave behind, the way people will remember you and your imprint on the world, then you will discover your personal 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. I love your take on success. I agree we other measure it in what we have what is tangible to get. But real success comes from what’s inside you. does your jnside match your outside? Ate you comfortable in your own skin? Have you compassion in your heart to help others no matter how small. I agree with you true success cam only be measured through personal achievement and what we do for others

  2. Your writing and message here about success is so powerful. It reminded me of something Marshall Goldsmith said on Shane Parish’s “The Knowledge Project” podcast:

    “Never make your value as a human being conditioned on the results of what you’re trying to achieve. Never do that. It’s a fool’s game. It is a fool’s game for two reasons. One, you don’t control the outcomes. There are a million variables impacting anything we’re trying to do in life today. You don’t control that. And number two, what happens if you do achieve stuff? How much satisfaction does that give you in life anyway, a week, a month, a year? Not much. As soon as you achieve something, if that’s all it matters, guess what you’re going to have to do? Achieve more and more and more, and you never get there.”

    “Never place your value as a human being” — (one’s personal definition of success) — “on the results of what you’re trying to achieve.”