What Is the Definition of Success?

Flickr / Joao Carlos Medau
Flickr / Joao Carlos Medau

I thought I was done with the hard work of being a human being. I sold my first company for $15 million.

Phew! That was hard. I thought after that that I was done. Time to drink and do everything else that is bad.


Got a few people pregnant. Lost all my money. Lost my home. Done!

This happened to me a few times. I sold a company in 1998. I sold a company in 2004. I sold a company in 2008. Wasn’t this my goal in life?

Each time, I felt like I no longer needed to keep up the facade of being healthy. I was now a success. No longer did I need to work for success. I WAS success.

But then…bad. And once-friendly faces would stick out:

“I knew it!” or “I told you so!” or just “I hate you and will make you punish!”

People will not hesitate to punish you.

So many people on their own layers of hell, eager to see someone fall past them so they know, beyond certainty, that there are hells deeper than the one they find themselves in.

So what then, is success. Because it is not money. And it is not some physical achievement. It’s not a book written, or a reward received or a job completed or a promotion anointed.

Here are the stages of success that I think exist. I can easily be wrong. This is what works for me now.

Success has no definition. It’s a myth. No microscope can dissect it.

Stages of fake success:

GOAL. You’ve created something of so much value to the masses that the value gets reflected back to you.

People look up to you. Money is showered down. This feels like success. It really does feel real good. Like super-cocaine. Success crack.

But, one might say, donuts can be perceived as creating value for the many. So many people might get pleasure from your donuts that your “success” knows no bounds.

In the long run donuts make you sick.

So this definition might be suspect.

HAPPY. You’re happy with spouse, job, place, your private creative achievements.

You wake up and the birds sing. You’re happy.

But we all know we age. People die. Creativity always carries on its back the weight of the criticisms all too eager to pile on. So this success is fleeting and hence suspect.

HEALTHY. I always advocate a daily practice: every day attempt to improve just 1% along physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pillars.

But I’m afraid. Something can always go wrong.

What can go wrong to the people I love today? What anonymous strangers will reach out and attempt to strangle me today?

I get almost every day letters from someone who promises to get me for implanting a chip in his brain and controlling him with secret technology.

Is it success if we are physically emotionally mentally spiritually healthy? If we improve those areas by 1% each day?

I think that’s closer. But I still don’t know. What’s wrong with “no improvement”. Why do we put the guns to our heads to improve?

Such pressure!

PRESENCE. Most of my life I time travel.

I’ve spent much time in the future analyzing the possible alternatives and being afraid of everything bad about to happen.

I’ve also spent valuable hours in the past, replaying, rewriting, regretting.

“But you have to focus on tomorrow,” people say, “so today you can best prepare for it.”

I’m staying in a house right now where the owner has a cute pad of “Lists” – every day she writes her to-do, grocery, bucket, life, etc lists.

But no matter how many items are on our list, we can only do one thing at a time. The rest is just possibility.

I can worry about fifteen things, but worrying will only weaken my energy for today, and do nothing to solve the problems of tomorrow. No matter what those problems are.

FREEDOM. Some of us are in prison. Some of us are in man-made prisons, Every excuse is a brick or a chain.

“It’s too late.” “I have no time” “I have no education” “I have no connections” etc.

Some of us are in self-imposed prisons, “if I don’t do THIS then I’ve FAILED”.

We’re the only jailers of these prisons. The doors are always open.

We open the doors by lowering our expectations. We walk out the doors when we realize how easy it is to exceed those expectations.

In a universe filled with a trillion galaxies and a trillion more years, there is no anointed goal that, when accomplished, will cause you to shout, “Success!”

Doing the best we can this moment is success. It brings about all the other stages of success described above.

The only way to have a successful tomorrow, and a successful life, and a successful legacy, is having a successful moment right now.

I can’t claim to do it. I try and usually I fail. Success is not meant to be every second. Else, how would you know what to compare it to.

Be gentle to yourself. You’re a little baby and someone needs to cradle you and whisper to you and love you.

My daughter just published a story on fanfiction.net. It’s anonymous because she doesn’t give a shit. She’s bragging. It has 2000 words. Fuck you, little girl. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated.

Keep up with James on Twitter and jamesaltucher.com

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