How We Can Define "Success" On Our Own Terms

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this blog post is part of a series, #oneblogpostaday.

the first part of this series is focused on purpose + career.


“Success” is a confusing word.

For our entire lives, we’ve been conditioned to believe that we are supposed to grow up, land a job that makes a ton of money, get married, have kids, buy a house and take lots of vacations.

That work isn’t supposed to be fun. That growing up is supposed to be difficult.

That if we do anything else (read: travel extensively before the age of 35, quit our “good” jobs for something off the beaten path, move somewhere new without a plan, decide not to have kids) we might as well have failed.

And success only seems to happen if we get good grades, go to a fancy (expensive) college, date an amazing person from the age of 22, and put all of our money into savings.

…right?

But, have you ever stopped to think about where you’ve received this definition of “success”? Have you ever questioned it’s validity?

And, even if you have - have you been brave enough to challenge it?


In one of my favorite books of all time (The Four Agreements), the author Don Miguel Ruiz talks a lot about this “domestication” of human beings.

“Humans punish themselves endlessly for not being what they believe they should be. They become very self-abusive, and they use other people to abuse themselves as well.”

He explains that from a young age, we are conditioned to act based on certain belief systems. We are rewarded when we are “good” (i.e. getting good grades, playing nice with the other kids), and punished when we are “bad” (i.e. not listening to our parents, acting out in school).

Ruiz speaks in simple terms, but punished could mean anything from not getting to play with your toy, to feeling a deep sense of shame. We learn - very quickly - what is acceptable in society.

That belief system of “success” begins to form…

As we grow older, we continue to please, please, please - our parents, our friends, our teachers, even strangers. We want to fit the mold, right? We don’t want to be rejected. We want to be good enough.

So, we learn to live based on other people’s versions of Good.


Until, that is, we get old enough to question it.

Some of us enter adulthood and continue to thrive based on the world’s definition of success. We get the job and the apartment and the boyfriend and the money. We work out and work hard and do all the things.

But at some point - we begin to wonder…is this it?

Our personal definitions of success come in conflict with those we were taught.

For me, that happened very early on. Like, a few weeks into my first job (I talked about it a lot in this blog post here).

Most importantly though - I saw many of my friends and even my mentors continue to move through the motions. They were acting within a set of confines because that’s what they were “supposed” to do. And let me tell you - from the outside it didn’t look fun.

So, I made myself a pact: I would never let myself get to “adulthood” (aka my 40’s then) and make decisions based on other’s definitions. Everything needed to be a conscious choice based on what I thought was right; not anyone else (my parents, friends, bosses, etc).

But as soon as I started to question my life choices and that definition of success that was handed to me - I didn’t know where to turn. I knew that it was wrong but I never had taken the time to ask myself: What does “success” actually look like?

Because, when had we ever been asked to define our ultimate life outcome? When are we asked to write out our personal life mission statement?

In my book, never.

So, during a very confusing and weird time - I did The Work. I redefined my version of success. I stopped looking outside of me for approval - and turned to my real self.

To me, this is the pre-cursor to figuring out your passion. We need to switch our definition of what’s “right” in order to dig deep. So to bear you all the confusion - here are some of the ways that I began to redefine what “success” means to me.

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1. Get quiet

In order to begin figuring out what living a successful, fulfilling life looks like, you need to get rid of the noise. We need to remove the “shoulds” and naysayers away from our circle.

We need to get quiet…alone.

During this time in my life, I made it a goal to spend at least 30 minutes alone every day (am I the weirdest? possibly). But, as I began to enter this new world where everyone was pulling at a part of me, I found it completely necessary to tune out + get comfortable with who I was.

A lot of times, we enter adulthood and push away all the discomfort. We’re doing so much changing but we block it out with friends and happy hour and workout classes. We hate spending time with ourselves.

But, in order to really figure out what the heck you want out of this life - you need to get rid of all the shit people are telling you to do and just do you.

Find your thing - maybe it’s journaling or running or even sitting in a coffee shop. But, let your thoughts go and see where your mind takes you.

2. Let all that shit go

What would you do if you had no expectations? Who would you be if you could follow your dreams?

Take some time to think big. To dream without restraint. To make a list of all the things that you maybe “shouldn’t” do…but kind of want to anyway.

Maybe it’s taking some time to travel. Maybe it’s going back to school for a completely different career. Maybe it’s (eek) deciding not to have kids and live in a ton of different places.

Take some time to write out what your life would be like if you could accomplish all your dreams. No rules. No limits. No need to know how you’d get there.

Just let go of all the expectations that have been placed on you (sometimes without even knowing it!) and think about what your life could look like if you gave it your all.

3. Begin to craft your personal life mission statement

For me, one of the biggest changes in my life was when I began to write out my “North Star.”

This was my one sentence personal mission statement about the Big Life Goals I had. We hear about mission statements when we think about our favorite brands and businesses - but what about our lives?

This exercise was really important in order to start thinking about how I’d make decisions as I went off this beaten path. As I redefined success. I needed a really easy metric to determine if my choices were getting me closer towards my dreams or further away from them.

And, let me tell you - this personal mission statement changes a hell of a lot over time. But, begin by thinking about the legacy you’d like to leave (is it about creating an impact on our environment? having an adorable family….or dog? feeding people the best food they’ve ever had?).

When I first started reflecting in this way, my personal mission statement was extremely broad: change the world (classic, Katina). But, over time I began to refine it into what it is today. I refer to this mission statement every day, every decision I make to see if I’m getting closer to my dream.

This way of thinking helps to reduce the stress of not following the typical path of “success.” Because, you’re working towards your goal - not away from something else.

  1. Test + learn

As I mentioned, your definitions and goals may change over time (and heck, they should!). As you do things out in the world, you’ll learn if that’s really it - or you’re actually still doing things based on what others think.

I’m not saying that you’ll completely get rid of your need to please (not now - or ever). It’s deeply ingrained in us as humans - and that’s okay! Maybe you do all this work to figure out that you actually do want that version of success you been taught. That’s cool too - no judgement here.

But, the most important point is to consciously be deciding what you want out of life. To define “success” based on your own terms - and choosing things you want to do because you say so - not your parents or influencers or your boss says so.

So, test it out. Make tiny decisions to see if your vision is working. And if it’s not - change it. It’s no big deal - life is a continuous iteration of learning.

Katina Mountanos