There is No One Single Definition of Success

March 17, 2019

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.  

Theodore Roosevelt


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.


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 all that we can be.


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 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? Do we have to be an expert in everything that we do to be successful? Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be filled with joy. When you come to a point where you have no need to impress anybody, your freedom will begin.


We are not asked to be great. We are just asked to be all that we can be.


Wynn Davis writes, “Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is in the doing, not the getting, in the trying, not the triumph."


Hal Urban adds, “The above quote says that 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.”  


The great philosopher Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Let each become all that he was created capable of being.” I can’t think of a better definition of success. Life challenges us every day to develop out capabilities to the fullest. Our continual theme throughout the blogs has been to become the best version of yourself every day.


How would you personally define success? I would venture to say success defined is as personal as your fingerprint or your DNA. You’re not going to master the rest of your life in one day. Just relax. Master the day. Then just keep doing that every day.


An executive was asked what her formula for success was.


“It’s very simple,” she said. “Just 10 simple two-letter words: “If It’s to be, it is up to me.”


Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be filled with joy.


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. Experiences and opportunities don’t just come your way; you have to help create them. Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, writes, “The worlds’ 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.


Let’s look at some definitions of success coined by some famous people we might recognize:


Actress Meryl Streep, early in her career, had 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.”


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.”


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.” 


Successful people accept life as it is, with all its difficulties and challenges.


Ellen DeGeneres quips. “The definition of success changes. Success is to live your life with integrity and not give in to peer pressure to be something you’re not. Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path; unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means, you should follow that." 


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”.


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?


Rich Ceisler, a comedian, states, “I joined a health club last year. Spent 400 bucks. Haven’t lost a pound. Apparently you have to show up.”


George Carlin 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 ½ of the effort unless you’re ok with ½ of the results. You can’t expect to succeed if you only put in work on the days you feel like it.


There is a well-known story of the stranger who saw a man wandering back and forth under a streetlight. When the stranger inquired if he could help, the man said he was looking for his car keys, which he had dropped. After looking for some time, the stranger inquired if the man could remember where he had dropped them. The man replied: “About half a block down the street, but the light is so much better here.”


You cannot talk ‘Butterfly’ language with ‘Caterpillar’ people.


On a more positive note, 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.”


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. When a child learns to walk and falls down 50 times, he never thinks to himself: “Maybe this isn’t for me?”


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 undertaking 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.


Let’s get some help from the animal world:


Two frogs fell into a can of cream

Or so I’ve heard it told.

The sides of the can were shiny and deep,

The cream was deep and cold.

“Oh, what’s the use?” said number 1,

“It’s fate - no help’s around.

Good-bye my friend! Good-bye sad world!”

And weeping still, he drowned.

But number 2, of sterner stuff,

Dog paddled in surprise,

The while he wiped his creamy face,

And dried his creamy eyes.

“I’ll swim a while at least,” he said,

Or so it has been said.

“It really wouldn’t help the world

If one more frog was dead.”

An hour or two he kicked and swam,

Not once he stopped to mutter.

But kicked and swam, and a swam and kicked,

Then hopped out, via butter.


One of my favorite things to do is to watch ants. In one of my favorite 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 an ant. Refuse to be stopped. Keep going and learn as you go. People who patiently persist finally see their dreams come true.


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


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 sharpening my ax.”


Abe Lincoln wrote, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”


People who patiently persist finally see their dreams come true.


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.”


Here is a wonderful story from 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.”


Remember, all things are difficult before they are easy. Can you allow yourself to be a beginner? No one starts off being excellent.


I consider myself to be a very disciplined person in most areas of my life. I must admit, I have always wanted to play a musical instrument, yet I never did. I am that person in Fred Roger’s story. I’ve purchased numerous instruments in my life but did not find that magic. I never invested the necessary time to learn, to practice. I just turned 71 this last February and I now play 4 different instruments. How did this happen? I had the blessing of meeting two encouragers who had the time and the patience to coach me along. (Thanks to Sharon and Joel. Couldn’t have done it without you.)


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.


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. You will not always be motivated, so you must learn to be disciplined. 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 practicing,” answered Lindberg.


“Practicing 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 bog with a wonderful, short story entitled: “Be Careful What You Wish!” We will follow that with a short piece 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.”


A master in the art of living

Draws no sharp distinction

Between his work and his play,

His labor 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.


Previous month: Seeing Problems as Challenges and Opportunities

Next month:  Habits are the Foundation for Success


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


What percentage of your time do you give your best?


What’s one life lesson or insight you’ve gained from a recent struggle?


Each day this month do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.


Review the quotes very carefully. Choose a quote and really focus on it. Make it a discussion practice at work, your “Quote of the day.”





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