How Do We Measure Success? Or Failure?

Sometimes success is easy to measure. Who won the Super Bowl? Clear winner. Who won the Boston Marathon? Again, the fastest runner is declared the winner.

Winning and losing seems to be easy to measure, at least on the surface. Competitive sports tend to have clear “winners” and “losers”. Yet for many runners, just making it to the end of a marathon, or beating their best time to date is as much of a victory as if they came in first place. So perhaps finding the winners and losers is not so easy after all.

In education, we are now measuring success of schools by using test scores of students to try to measure teaching competency. Yet some of my tutoring students have admitted to just getting bored and deciding to fill in the dots randomly on the test- clearly, not reflective of the competency of their teachers.

In New Media, many of my friends are having the discussion about what constitutes success for them, success in the marketplace…what makes someone an expert? What do you have to do to become “qualified” in such a new field? Is your own personal podcast and blog now your resume, more than any typical CV and its credentials, allegedly acting as stamps of approval?

I believe that success is personal. It’s not one-size-fits-all. You can and should have measurable goals to make sure you move forward. You should have yardsticks to measure your performance.  While these benchmarks and goals measure progress, I’m not at all sure they measure overall success.

Success is often ephemeral. I feel successful at parenting when my kids are happy. I feel successful in my relationship when my husband and I walk hand in hand down the street, just talking and enjoying each other’s company. I feel successful in my work when I get a new client, complete a job, receive a compliment on my performance, or otherwise seem to make a difference or an impact on something. Yet if you ask me whether or not I am successful, I often would say “I’m working on it.”  I can feel successful from time to time, but I don’t feel comfortable with it as a label. Somehow, saying “I am Successful” out loud triggers immediate feelings of panic and a sense of being a poseur- Can I really determine whether or not I am successful?  At What?  To Whom? Is success ultimately context-dependent?

The concept of successful often seems reserved for the self-satisfied wealthy and celebrities. People who have “made it”.  They appear successful to us, based on their fame or fortune, or perhaps on what we think they have.  We covet these badges and markers of success. Yet whether or not those “stars” are really successful as people should be measured in other ways. Are they happy? Are they satisfied with their life? Do their children like them? Do people like them, or fear them?  We know they either are or should be wealthy, but is material wealth the only measure of your success, or is it just a small piece of a much larger puzzle?

I think one of the best exercises to do is to complete the following sentence with five different answers:

I feel successful when ________________________.

When you feel successful, you are probably doing something you love or take pride in, whether it’s family or work related.  But success is individual- it’s not always the external money and power thing.  Or at least I hope not.

Let’s face it. We all screw up from time to time. We hopefully learn from our mistakes, but it often takes many attempts to get something right. Which brings me to the flip side of success- failure.

One of my favorite writers, Seth Godin, has a new book out, The Dip. (Seth is going to be speaking in Philadelphia at the World Cafe on May 16th, 8 am to 10 am. I can’t wait!)

In his book, and on his blog, he talks about the seven reasons you aren’t the best in the world- you should read the whole post, but here’s an excerpt:

The seven reasons

 

Seven Reasons You Might Fail to Become the Best in the World

  • You run out of time (and quit).
  • You run out of money (and quit).
  • You get scared (and quit).
  • You’re not serious about it (and quit).
  • You lose interest or enthusiasm or settle for being mediocre (and quit).
  • You focus on the short term instead of the long (and quit when the short term gets too hard).
  • You pick the wrong thing at which to be the best in the world (because you don’t have the talent).

Even worse than quitting in the first six cases: not quitting. Settling. Sticking with it but not succeeding.

Is failure the opposite of success?  There seems to be a lot of life that falls somewhere between out of the ballpark success and absolute, dismal failure. Maybe knowing when to quit can be success. Maybe knowing what you’re getting into and preparing for the good and the bad is success. Maybe knowing your strengths and working with them rather than against them is success.

I do know that success breeds success. Success feels good and is compelling; failure is demoralizing and stressful. If you want to be successful, you have to know when to give up, and what to give up; you have to also be willing to do whatever is necessary to be remarkable and special.

This kind of special is rare.  It involves making a personal investment in excellence.  It isn’t simple.  There are no checklists or workflows.  And it involves recognizing all the small steps and goals towards “success” and celebrating them as much as the end product.

Maybe this means failure is a destination and a stopping point, where success is more of a journey.  Even after stopping off at “Failure”, (I’m hearing a train conductor in the background… Weehawken, Secaucus, Failure….) we can get up and catch the next train towards success.  After all, it’s all about the ride, anyway.

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