The Changing Definition of Success

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. I learnt about the definition of success from a book designed to iron out my finances.

But here we are.

Outside of Australia, Scott Pape is probably just another man on a farm but over the last few years, he’s stirred up our finance industry by teaching ordinary Australians how to wrestle back control of their finances with his book, The Barefoot Investor.

My copy of this guide is more than a few years old now — with more tea stains, dog-ears and annotations than it was originally printed with — and there is one lesson in particular that has stayed with me.

It’s about how we define success. Until reading The Barefoot Investor, I’d given the topic very little thought or consideration. What does it mean to be successful? What is success? What does a successful person look like? Unlike me, Scott had obviously asked himself these questions as he answers them in his book:

“True and lasting success is knowing deep in your bones that you have the freedom to tread your own path in life…”

This differs only a little (read: heavy sarcasm) from the definitions we find in most contemporary lexicons and, according to my app (yeh, I’m that kind of person), we see that “success” is:

1. The attainment of wealth, position, honours, or the like.

2. A performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honours.

3. A person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.

Do you notice the theme?

Society (and the dictionary) would have us believe that success is barely more than a synonym for money and power. I would further argue that our thirst for instant gratification has also led us to measure success by a third metric: popularity. You may not consider Instagramers or Youtubers as ‘successes’ but you could argue that someone with 10, 000 likes or 1 million views is more of a success than a person with 100.

Mostly, we unquestionably accept this culturally sanctioned definition of success. And why not?


This is the definition spoon-fed to us by both media and mainstream culture and, as shallow as it seems, this is not entirely unjustified. In our busy and over-stimulated lives, we like it when things are simplified and having success defined with tangible representations of wealth (fancy cars, big houses and expensive clothes), power (accomplishments, positions and awards) and popularity (followers, friends and likes) means that we can discern where someone sits on the social hierarchy without the need to dig too deeply.

The problem with MPP = SUCCESS is that it’s a formula that society has written for us. By never challenging the idea that success can only be measured by material accomplishments you are allowing others (your family, friends, peers and strangers) to determine and measure your success for you.

By never questioning the formula, the definition never changes either. We will not be the same people in our 50s that we are in our teens, and yet we are supposed to continue to define our lives by the same formula? Will that really bring us to a place of contentment, happiness and fulfilment?

It may for some but the problem with this definition goes even deeper when we make the mistake of believing that MPP = SUCCESS and SUCCESS = HAPPINESS.

It’s not the case and those that hold tight to this belief rarely turn out to be happier than anyone else. Instead, they end up trapped in a never-ending pattern, chasing the next material possession, position or ‘success’ to try to get to a place where they perceive the grass is greener. They’re never satisfied with what they already have because there is no stopping point for success. Someone or something else is always ahead of them so they get the promotion, upgrade the car, renovate their house, change their wardrobe and post about it all online.

When do they know when to stop? They don’t.

Such attainments might bring pleasure in the short-term but the effects are unsustainable. In an effect referred to as hedonic adaption or the hedonic treadmill, psychologists observed people after major events in their lives (positive and negative) and found that most eventually returned to their usual level of happiness. So, in the long term, those successes brought about by money, power and popularity did not make those people any happier.

This all sounds like a no-win situation but trust me, there is some good news!

Success can equal happiness but only if that definition is unique to us. When you look at it properly, success is an intensely personal and multifaceted concept. You do not live the same life as the person next to you and your definition of success shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

But how do you go about writing this new version of success? Unfortunately, success is not always as easy to define as ‘successful’ people make it seem and it won’t always be a static definition throughout our lives. Sometimes we don’t even know what success is until we have it. Other times, we need others to express it for us to spark a new idea.

So, if you’re like me and need a bit of inspiration to get you thinking about how you define success, here is what others have to say!

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

Albert Schweitzer

“Don’t be afraid to fail.

Don’t just go out there and climb the ladder of success. Instead, redefine success. Because the world desperately needs it.

And finally, remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause, to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. As Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

Arianna Huffington*

*Paraphrased for the header image design

“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of a pure women; the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children, who has left the world better than he found it, whose life was an inspiration.”

Bessie Anderson Stanley

“Success if not measured by what a man accomplishes, but by the opposition he has encountered and the courage with which he has maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.”

Charles Lindbergh

“A successful life is one that is lived through understanding and pursuing one’s own path, not chasing after the dreams of others.”

Chi-ning Chu

“Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realisation of worthy goals.”

Deepak Chopra.

“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure which is: try to please everybody.”

Herbert B. Swope

“Success is the freedom to live your life as the great big fat adventure it is- and the wisdom to understand that all you have to do it choose to do so.”

John Jantsch

“To me, the definition of success is waking up in the morning with a smile on your face, knowing it’s going to be a great day. I was happy and felt like I was successful when I was poor, living with six guys in a three-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the floor.”

Mark Cuban

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

Maya Angelo.

“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”

Morihei Useshiba

Impact, wisdom, purpose, fulfilment, happiness, freedom, love, self-love, personal growth, family, relationships, value creation, passion, resolve, overcoming obstacles, financial independence, giving back.

Ideas from Planet Success

Passion. Work. Good. Focus. Push. Serve. Ideas. Persist.

Richard St. John (TED Talk).

“If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you at your funeral you will find your definition of success.”

Stephen Covey

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

All images and designs © 2014–2020 to MK Photography (Sarah Pragnell). For more, go to

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