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  • Ian Henderson

There is No One Single Definition of Success

Updated: Nov 14



Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well, that when people see you do it, they will want to come back, and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.

- Walt Disney


A father sat down with his two kids - ten and thirteen - and asked them what they thought winning meant. They both piped up with answers right in line with our cultural “We have to win!” norm. The son replied, “Winning means beating other people, being the best, being perfect, getting straight A’s, always being first in everything.” A moment passed. His ten-year-old daughter started to cry. She said, “Daddy, I’ve never been a winner at anything; I’ve never been the best at anything.” Her father was shocked. His response was to declare that winning in their home, from that point forward, would always be defined as doing your best, not being the best.

Do we have to win at everything and be number one to be successful? Do we have to get straight A’s in all our courses to be successful? Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be filled with joy. One of my aunts shared this with me a few years ago, “When you come to a point where you have no need to impress anybody, your freedom will truly begin.”

Life challenges us every day to develop out capabilities to the fullest.

Two expert taxidermists stopped before a window in which an owl was on display. They immediately began to criticize the way it was mounted. Its eyebrows were not natural; its wings were not in proportion with its head; its feathers were not neatly arranged; and its feet definitely needed some more work. Just as they were about to move on, the owl turned his head and winked at them.

Do we have to be an expert in everything that we do to be successful?

There’s a story about Moshe, a poor shoemaker who dies and finds himself about to meet his maker. He begins to make excuses about why he did not make more of himself in life.

With this, he is warned. “When you are in His presence, He will not ask you why you were not Moses or King David or any one of the prophets. He will ask you why you were not Moshe the shoemaker.” We are not asked to be great. We are just asked to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Hal Urban adds, “Success is in the doing, not in the getting. I can’t emphasize that point enough. Life doesn’t require us to always come out on top. It asks only that we do our best at each level of experience. Successful people accept life as it is, with all its difficulties and challenges. They accept responsibility for their own lives instead of blaming others or making excuses. They say yes to life is spite of its negative elements and make the most of it, no matter what the circumstances.”

Katherine Berko, of Duke University, writes, "In life, there is one word that forever seems to buzz around in people’s heads. That word is ‘success.’ Here’s the thing: Success is a subjective term; it can have more than one definition." What you need to do is figure out what your ideal definition of success is and then work towards it. As you read through this lesson, ask yourself, "Which of these definitions is closest to my ideal definition of success?" Keep in mind that due to life just being life with its varying extenuating circumstances and shifting opportunities, your ideal version of success may change at different points in your life. The crucial thing is to be conscious of what types of success mean the most and the least to you. By doing this, you will find yourself happier as you work towards the most fulfilling version of your life. You know the saying, ‘One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.’ It is the same with success. Michelle Obama chips in, “Just do what works for you, because there will always be someone who thinks differently.”

The great philosopher Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Let each become all that he was created capable of being.” What a wonderful definition of success. Life challenges us every day to develop out capabilities to the fullest. Our continual theme throughout the lessons has been to become the best version of yourself every day.

There are so many definitions of success. Whit Hobbs writes, “Success is waking up in the morning whoever you are, wherever you are, however young or old and bounding out of bed because there’s something out there that you love to do, that you believe in, that you’re good at, something that’s bigger than you are, and you can hardly wait to get at it again today.” Perhaps my personal favorite definition was penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”

If you’re waiting around for someone to make something happen for you, you’re waiting in vain. Anything good that happens will be because you made it happen.

And you can’t let your moods run your life. You will never be successful if you only work on days when you feel like it. Who said you have to feel like it? Anyone can do something when they want to do it. Successful people do things when they don’t want to do it. You will not always be motivated, so you must learn to be disciplined.

I am often fascinated by people who wear T-shirts, with humorous expressions printed on them. Recently, I saw this one, “I wish everything was as easy as getting fat.”

Singer Jimmy Buffett writes, “I am very lucky to be at this point in my life and to be having this much fun and having this career with no end in sight. I think it’s luck, it’s hard work; and its talent; and you have to have all three-any combination of only two doesn’t work.” Talent alone will not guarantee success. H. Jackson Brown adds, “Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards or sideways.”

Experiences and opportunities don’t just come your way; you have to help create them. Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, writes, “The world’s greatest lie is this, that at a certain point we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.” If you’re searching for that one person who will change your life, take a look in the mirror.

An executive was asked what her formula for success was. “It’s very simple,” she said. “Just 10 simple two-letter words: “If It is to be, it is up to me.”

Tom Wilson, the cartoonist, once wrote, “I’ve got a lucky rabbit’s foot, a lucky coin, and a four-leaf clover. The problem is, apparently, none of them become effective until I do.”

How does Meryl Streep define success? Early in her career, she gave this reply when asked about the possibility of winning another Oscar: “I’d rather be voted mother of the year by my family, because nobody realizes that being a good mother is harder than making a movie. Being a housewife and mother is much more difficult.”

Experiences and opportunities don’t just come your way; you have to help create them.

Stan Lee writes, “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical school. And then I began to realize, entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain, you’re doing a good thing.” That would be his personal definition of success!

John Williams, the famous composer adds, “We can’t anticipate success in the things that we do. You may write a sentence that will become chiseled in marble on someone’s library, but you don’t know that when you write it. And that’s usually not the best motivation behind that kind of creative ability anyway. I think if it’s fantastic and fun and adventurous, that gives us our best time, and very often will give us our best results also.”

Let’s take a closer look at success and some of its major concepts.

Vidal Sassoon writes, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Four short words sum up what has lifted most successful individuals above the crowd, ‘a little bit more.’ They did all that was expected of them and a little bit more. Always go the extra mile; it’s never crowded.

Kenneth Blanchard writes, “There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you only do it when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.” I am constantly amazed by people who put in so little effort yet expect big results. Luck is great, but most of life is hard work. These people would never understand the principle that luck is often defined as where preparation meets opportunity. Why do some people continually seem to be in the right place at the right time?

On the opposite side of this, we have George Carlin, who wrote: “I’ve adopted a new lifestyle that doesn’t require my presence. In fact, if I don’t want to, I don’t have to get out of bed at all, and I still get credit for a full day.” I guess Woody Allen had it right when he said that 80% of life was simply showing up. Don’t put in one-half of the effort unless you’re okay with one-half of the results.

If I had to select one quality, one personal characteristic that I regard as being most highly correlated with success, whatever the field, I would pick perseverance. The will to endure to the end, to get knocked down and get back up off the floor.

What is perseverance? Perseverance is a quality that sees difficulties in what we have planned, but causes us to take action and move ahead through those difficulties, no matter how severe they are, sticking with our task until we reach the end. Humans can choose to exercise perseverance. You can choose to stick with worthwhile goals. You can keep going when it seems as though it’s too difficult. You can keep moving ahead even when you get discouraged; continue on when everyone else gives up.

Have you ever taken the opportunity to just sit for a few minutes and watch ants. In one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, Calvin asks, “Ever sit and watch ants? Look at this one. He’s carrying a crumb that’s bigger than he is, and he’s running. And if you put an obstacle in front of him, he’ll scramble like crazy until he gets across it. He doesn’t let anything stop him. I just can’t identify with that kind of work ethic.”

Ever try to put the skids on an ant. It’s virtually impossible. They never stop. Pretend you are five years old, and make a little hill in an ant’s path. The ant will walk up and over the top without braking. It will go into a hole, over a log, through grass. If it can’t go through, it will go around. An ant will never turn around and walk the other way no matter what obstacles are in its path.

Try applying that kind of tenacity to your life. Be ant-like. Refuse to be stopped. Keep going and learn as you go. People who patiently persist finally see their dreams come true.

Thomas Edison summed this up so well, when he penned:

His genius he was quite content,

in one brief sentence to define,

Of inspiration one percent,

Of perspiration, ninety nine.

While it is important to persevere, it is also important to take the time to recharge.

Once upon a time, one man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest.

The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.”

“But you didn’t notice.” said the winning woodsman, “that when I sat down to rest, I was also sharpening my axe.”

What if we stopped to sharpen our (metaphorical) axe a little more often? What if we recharged ourselves as often as we did our phones? Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. Remember in life to practice the pause. When in doubt, pause. When tired, pause. And when you’re stressed, pause.

A stone is broken by the last stroke of a hammer. This doesn’t mean that the first stroke is useless. Success is the result of continuous and persistent effort. It was Eddie Cantor, a famous TV pioneer personality who wrote, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success.”

Fred Rogers wrote in The World According to Mister Rogers, “When I was young (about eight or nine years old), I was trying to learn so many things all at once, things like the piano and organ and algebra and cooking and typing, and I even started to take clarinet lessons. But I didn’t practice the clarinet, so I didn’t learn. I think I wanted to learn by magic. I think I had the idea that if I got a clarinet I would somehow know how to play it. But magic doesn’t work with learning, not with anything really worthwhile.” All things are difficult before they are easy. Can you allow yourself to be a beginner? No one starts off being excellent.

A pedestrian on 57th street in New York, sees a musician getting out of a cab and is asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, he replies, “Practice! Practice! Practice!” Apparently, no other global destination has a more well-known joke associated with itself than Carnegie Hall.

What if we recharged ourselves as often as we did our phones?

Do it over and over again until it becomes part of who you are. Abraham Lincoln summed it up beautifully, “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” There is always time if you make it. Everyone must choose one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Two of the most common regrets people have in life is not following their passions and not daring to take risks.

John Maxwell shares a story about pioneer aviator Charles Lindberg, who flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew more than thirty-three hours, flew alone and covered 3,600 miles. How did he do that? He worked up to it. In the 1920’s, Lindberg used to fly mail out of St. Louis. Occasionally he would go to San Diego to check on the progress of his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, which was being built there. A friend, Frank Samuels would sometimes go along with him, and the two men would stay overnight in a small hotel there. One night Samuels woke up shortly after midnight and noticed Lindberg was sitting by the window looking at the stars. It had been a long day, so Samuels asked, “Why are you sitting there at this hour?”

“Just practising,” answered Lindberg.

“Practising what?” asked Samuels.

“Staying awake all night.”

When he could have enjoyed a well-deserved rest, Lindberg was putting forward a special effort to improve himself. Amelia Earhart, another famous pioneer pilot wrote’ “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity.”

Let’s close this lesson with a short story entitled: “Be Careful What You Wish!” We will follow that with a writing from Kenneth Blanchard.

“It seems all I do is work,” a man complained to himself. “I’m gone before the sun rises and return home long after it sets. I’m too tired to look after myself and my home. I have no life. I wish I didn’t have to work or even lift one finger!”

He awoke the next morning to find servants attending to his every need. They read to him so he wouldn’t have to hold a book, turn a page or even strain his eyes. When he was hungry or thirsty, food or water was held to his lips; when he wanted to go outside and enjoy his garden, the servants carried him to a chair where he sat and watched them weed, mow, prune, and transplant.

This seemed wonderful for a time, but gradually the man grew bored. “Let me help,” the man said one day to his servants as they tended his yard.

“That is not allowed,” one of the servants replied. “You must not lift one finger.”

“There has to be something I can do around here,” the man said. “Surely I can contribute to my own welfare in some sort of way.”

Another servant politely reminded the man that his new life required that he not expend any effort or energy. “You must not work,” said the servant. “This is what you wished for. And what we are obliged to provide for you.”

“Maybe I should have wished for something else,” the man said. “I see now that what I desired most was meaningful work and a life filled with meaning. This is not living.”

Ken Blanchard writes:

A master in the art of living

Draws no sharp distinction

Between his work and his play,

His labour and his leisure,

His mind and his body,

His education and his recreation.

He hardly knows which is which.

He simply pursues his vision

Of excellence through whatever he is doing

and leaves others to determine

Whether he is working or playing.

To himself, he always seems to be doing both.


What does success look like to you? Write your own personal definition.

Is your definition of success the same as everyone else’s?

What is something you’re doing now that you could never imagined yourself doing in the past?

Analyze your life in terms of your environment and surroundings. Are the things around you helping you towards success or are they holding you back?


Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

Success is neither magical or mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.

- Jim Rohn

As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.

- Katharine Hepburn

I am not the smartest or most talented person in the world, but I succeeded because I kept going, and going, and going.

- Sylvester Stallone.

I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.

- Florence Nightingale

I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.

- Abraham Lincoln

Success is more permanent when you achieve it without destroying your principles.

- Walter Cronkite

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

- Beverly Sills

When you find yourself getting lost in your work, you can be pretty sure you’ve found your future.

- Tom Wilson

Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.

- Henry Van Dyke

Paralyze resistance with persistence.

- Woody Hayes

My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment put you in the best place for the next moment.

- Oprah Winfrey

Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.

- Kobe Bryant

Perseverance is priceless. It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.

- Albert Einstein

The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term, in order to enjoy greater rewards for the long run, is the indispensable prerequisite for success. - Brian Tracy

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

- Maya Angelou

People rarely succeed unless they are having fun in what they’re doing.

- Dale Carnegie

There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happened.

- Tommy Lasorda

Remember that when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, the best way to make progress is to back up.

- Zig Ziglar

I’m the little engine that did!

- Dolly Parton

Talk doesn’t cook rice.

- Chinese Proverb

Hard work and a proper frame of mind prepare you for the lucky breaks that finally come along-or don’t.

- Harrison Ford

Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it’s a kind of order that sets me free to fly.

- Julie Andrews

To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do to conclusions.

- Benjamin Franklin

If you have the courage to start, you have the courage to succeed.

- Mel Robbins

It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.

- Babe Ruth.


Next Lesson: Failing Well; Failing Forward

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