What Does Success Mean For You?

by Ali on March 8, 2010


Back in January, I regaled you with some of my goals for this year. I included this ambitious little template of my novel plans, explaining that I wanted to get Draft 2 done before going to SXSW:

The novel plan - success!

Well, I’m happy to report that the bit circled there in red happened. As you may have noticed if you follow me on Twitter, I’ve finished Draft 2 of the novel (clocking in at 176,000 words). With two whole days to spare. Success! I’ve even made copies on Lulu for myself and a couple of friends who’ve offered to give feedback on the whole thing. It looks like this:

Lycopolis (draft 2)

(I should’ve made my name bigger, damnit! Oh well…)

Happy ending? Sure. If you don’t count the blog posts unwritten, the friends neglected, the wedding unplanned…

Okay, I’ll be upbeat. Yeah, it’s a happy ending. I did succeed in something which I really wanted to do, and managed to get over my usual hang-ups about its lack of meaning to others. (Frankly, the world would be going on quite happily today whether or not I’d scrawled THE END on draft two yesterday.)

So am I a success? Hell, yeah. ;-) … But, seriously, that’s not the way to look at it. I succeeded at meeting a target I set for myself. It had a lot of meaning to me. I could have failed, but even if I had, it wouldn’t really have mattered: I’d probably still have got close to my goal.

Success (Should Be) Concrete

The biggest problem I have with the idea of “success” is that it can be pretty vague – particularly when we talk about being a success.

Am I a success because I said so, above? Am I a success if someone else says so?

Am I a successful writer if I finish a short story? A novel? Get published? Get on the New York Times bestselling list? Make a million pounds?

You see what I’m getting at here. Success doesn’t really mean anything unless it’s concrete. If you’re striving for some nebulous idea of success as perpetuated by the media and by society, you’ll never feel like you’ve made it, because you don’t really know what you’re after.

I can tell you confidently that I’ve succeeded in my writing goal because I met a concrete target – finishing my second draft. I also met it by a self-imposed deadline, but that’s not an essential part of success.

How can you measure whether you’ve succeeded? What are you actually aiming at?

Success Is Subjective

There are lots of yardsticks that the world uses to measure success. How about:

  • Your job title and importance in the workplace
  • Your family – a “successful marriage”, being a “successful parent”
  • How much you earn, or what your net worth is
  • The sort of house you live in and the lifestyle you have
  • Whether you’ve achieved particular career milestones (“successful footballer”)

Someone else’s measure of success isn’t necessarily right for you. Perhaps you couldn’t care less about climbing a corporate ladder: success, for you, means having the freedom to travel and to paint. Or maybe you can’t think of anything more stultifying than settling down in one place, owning your own house and having 2.4 kids.

You get to decide what success means. It’s probably not a certain amount of money in the bank, or a widescreen TV. It doesn’t need to be a big goal, or some external measure of success based on the world’s reaction to you. It might be something that’s quite simple like:

  • I’m a successful blogger when I write a good post every week
  • I’m a successful parent when I’m patient even when I’m tired
  • I’m a successful artist when I draw something, anything, every day

Think bigger if you want. I’ll be a successful novelist (in my own eyes) not when I’m published, but when I have fan mail … that’s how I’ll know my work has touched someone.

Failure Is Important Too

Back in January, I had some plans for this site – like, you know, regular posts. It didn’t totally happen. I managed one key success – launching an ebook that I was very pleased with (and which has had some lovely feedback), The Blogger’s Guide to Effective Writing. But I didn’t get everything done.

But that’s okay. Failing isn’t losing. It’s not Game Over. I got part-way with my non-novel goals, and I also learnt some good things about my own process: I just can’t keep up the momentum with two big writing projects at once.

A lot has already been said in the personal development sphere about failure, and about how it’s good to fail, and I’m not going to rehash a lot of it here. I’m just going to suggest that we shouldn’t see “success” and “failure” as two binary opposites, but as points on a spectrum. If you’re nearer to the “success” end than the “failure” end, that’s good enough. Heck, if you’ve managed to bump yourself any of the way towards success, give yourself a pat on the back for it.

When we fail, that’s useful feedback. We can figure out what went wrong: in my case, it’s usually over-ambitious planning. We can fix it: I used Charlie Gilkey’s Premium Planners to help me get my head around the rest of this year.

If you’ve got a few minutes, try this:

  • Pick one of the key areas of your life (as defined by you): your work? Your family? An activity or hobby?
  • Ask yourself what “success” will look like in that area. How will you know when you’ve succeeded?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

{ 2 trackbacks }

Conversation Hacking – How To Make Small Talk Work For You
March 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm
If You Don’t Get Published, Is Writing a Waste of Time? — Aliventures
January 6, 2011 at 2:07 pm

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Krahl March 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Hi Ali,

Another awesome article! I totally agree with you on measuring success. I think sometimes we do not give ourselves enough credit and tend to focus on the negative side of things vs. how much closer we have actually come to what we want to accomplish.

BTW… I have the same problem that you mentioned… “over-ambitious planning”. It tends to get in my way. If you have suggestions on how you go about managing this, I would greatly appreciate any guidance.. :-)

Take care.


Jason Edleman March 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Hi Alli,

Congrats on your acomplishment! Since I am a project manager, I could no help but relate the two concepts. In project mangement, a project is considered a success when it has met its deliverables. Deliverables are defined as tangible outcomes. Deliverables are defined by a person or group. On our point about failure, I agree. With projects failure is always seen as failure. But, on a personal level, failure is the best teacher.

Thanks for the post!

.-= Jason Edleman´s last blog ..Managerial Courage Part Four: Charisma =-.


Vlad Dolezal March 8, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Funny, I was just thinking about success (and more broadly “ideal life”). I came to a slightly different conclusion. (And I will soon write a blog post about it.)

I’d say ideal life isn’t so much about achieving something… but about doing something you really care about. In striving for a goal greater than yourself, that makes you feel excited and come alive.

And sure, you will set goals and achieve “success” along the way. And that’s great. But it’s not the main point, the main point is the journey to that success. Like climbing a mountain isn’t about being on top… it’s about going to the top.

Once you achieve success, you bask in your glory for a few moments, and then get bored and go do something else that excites you and challenges you. So I’d say the real thing is actually the journey of striving for success!
.-= Vlad Dolezal´s last blog ..How to Change Your Limiting Beliefs – The Ultimate Guide =-.


Wulfie March 8, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Great article, full of wisdom. Thanks.


Eduard @ Ideas With A Kick March 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Hey Ali,

I agree that this term of success is a very vague one. Most people I know have a problem achieving success because the term does not get more specific for them. They don’t really understand what success means for them so even if they get something which might be generally seen as an accomplishment, it does not necessarily make them happy. Funny how just yesterday I wrote something about knowing yourself.


Ali March 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Wow, thanks all! :-)

Stephanie … all I can suggest is learning from painful experience! ;-) I find that asking myself what my top priority is helps (for the last couple of months, it was the novel). Finishing one project before starting another is also useful. Hmm, maybe I’ll try to do a post on over-ambitious planning…

Jason, thanks for the project management thoughts. (I got involved in project management very very briefly when I had a “day job” … not a good experience for me, I’m afraid!) I suspect it’s much healthier to think of *projects* rather than *people* as successes/failures.

Vlad, look forward to reading your post! And yes, I’m pretty much with you there, except that I’d add that for me, part of life is leaving the world a better place. But on a personal level, there’s not much point achieving Goal X if you hated the 50 years it took to get there!

Wulfie, cheers :-)

Eduard, I agree there’s a danger of feeling unsatisfied if you don’t have some idea of what you’re counting as “success”. And yes, knowing yourself is a key part of all this.


Sid Savara March 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Hey Ali!

First off, congrats on the novel! I can’t believe you’ve managed to keep up the blogging, and the staff blogging, and school (I think) and finished it. That’s awesome.

Second, I love this “Someone else’s measure of success isn’t necessarily right for you”

Reminds me of that Steve Jobs speech where he says: “`Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

The key area in my life I’ve been focusing on lately is my fitness. I always try and keep in pretty good shape, but I’m starting to make it a real focus – and success is in my training logs, and in the mirror ;). I don’t ever really know I’ve succeeded though, it’s not as concrete as finishing an ebook or a novel ;)

And you still have the most awesome permalinks!
.-= Sid Savara´s last blog ..7 Common Procrastination Excuses =-.


Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion March 8, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Ali, so great to hear from you :-) Job extremely well done on your novel, very impressive, which I guess makes you an anomaly in the blogging industry cuz you can go for the short and the long. Awesome. Continued success to you, your blog, and your novel. And btw, I like your little name on the front, I don’t think it’s too small at all. Can’t wait to see how it all unfolds for you.
.-= Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion´s last blog ..Business Pride Cycles and the Comeback of 2010 =-.


Tim Brownson March 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Massive congrats on the book Ali, and that is a massive stonker at 176k!! The cover looks absolutely amazing, did you do that?
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..What Are My Values? =-.


Archan Mehta March 8, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Three cheers to you, Ali, for the “success” on your novel. We knew you could do it. Hooray!

In my case, I am a notorious slacker, so I have never tasted any success in my life so far. And “grapes are sour” does not apply to me, since I have never tasted grapes. That will be the day for me!

However, there is hope even for people like me: I could always aspire to turn into a “deadbeat dad.” Or, I could change my gender and turn into a “welfare mom.” Or dump my woman for a Hollywood grandma with money in the bank and a bungalow on Sunset Boulevard. Catch my drift?

Better yet, the best way to achieve success is to become a politician and go to sleep “while Parliament is in session.” Is the House of Lords looking for new recruits? Please let me know.

Since I am not the brightest bulb shining in the closet, I ran out of ideas a long time ago. In fact, I never had any bright ideas to begin with. So, I let other people take care of success and things like that.

Let other people become rich and famous. I am quite content with my easygoing ways and don’t want to really worry about “achieving goals/objectives.” That’s why Cambridge rejected yours truly. The admissions committee told me, “Like, why did you even bother to apply, weirdo?” Duh. Arrrgh!


Ali March 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Sid, thanks! “Finished” is relative here — there’ll be a Draft 3 (and probably a Draft 4), but it’s considerably closer to finished than Draft 1 was… ;-)

Good on you with the fitness, I thought I’d noticed a growing trend there in your blogging! I guess one measure is simply whether you have plenty of energy and good health, and whether the fitness activities generally enhance your life?

Marcus, thanks! I love blogging and I love fiction writing. I started off with short stories (usually a similar length to the posts here on Aliventures) but I found that with fiction, I’m definitely better on the longer-haul versions.

Tim, no, I swiped the cover image from a quick Google (“forest” and “black”, I think). I’m only going to use the book for personal revision and editing rather than sell it or anything…

Archan, thanks! You’ve never had grapes?! You’re missing out! :-P I’ve never had the impression that you’re a slacker, just that you’re a creative and thoughtful type. Maybe you just need your space… (Cambridge is generally pretty welcoming of weirdos, in my experience; I met some wonderful people there!)


Archan Mehta March 8, 2010 at 9:02 pm


I was only trying to be facetious: just cracked a few jokes and wanted you to laugh out loud. Cheers!

Also, you mentioned in your latest post that success means different things to different people.
And you are quite correct. However, I forgot to mention the following:(sorry for the omission)…

You and your readers/subscribers/visitors would do well to check out Maria Brophy’s excellent blog on “Art and Lifestyle” (just google her name and you will find her website/blog).

Maria is an inspiration and she is one of my favorite bloggers. She writes about art/creativity. In my humble opinion, her blog is a must-read. Maria has designed her life in such a way that her life reflects what she is passionate about.

Maria lives near the beach and ocean and paints and markets and earns money from her art. Maria’s husband, Drew, is a successful artist, and Maria is great at marketing. She is also a great writer.

And they travel all over the world on gigs and for pleasure too: what an inspiring story. I wasn’t even aware that we have such awesome people in the world. It was almost like going to Church and having a revelation.

I find the sojourns of such people quite inspirational, because they don’t have the “herd mentality” and don’t follow the crowd. Instead, such people live life on their own terms and conditions.

Just thought of pointing this out, since it would add value to the dialogue and to your community.


Bob March 9, 2010 at 12:47 am

Great post… one extension I might offer is that while success should be concrete, as you rightly observed, it is OK to change your definition mid-way so long as you are clear about the reasons. Of course if you are changing your definition ever other week, you’d be well-advised to seek out the root cause of your dissatisfaction….

All the best,



Julius March 9, 2010 at 3:31 am

In principle, I believe that my success should be defined by my own terms and thoughts, but I admit that I often compare myself with others and from that I base how successful I am. I’m nonetheless glad that your post helped me regain that belief that the definition and appreciation of success should indeed come from within. I also like what you said “Failing is not losing”.
.-= Julius´s last blog ..Closed-Circuit Televisions =-.


Kat Eden March 9, 2010 at 6:07 am

I’ve learned that for me, the best way to ever acknowledge that I’m successful is to take time-out every now and then and list everything I’ve accomplished over the past little while. Otherwise I just focus on all the things I haven’t done, and given that I’m ridiculously OTT with the tasks I set for myself that’s a sure recipe for disaster!
.-= Kat Eden´s last blog ..How To Enjoy Fresh Fish Without A Hefty Dose Of Mercury =-.


Farouk March 9, 2010 at 9:08 am

very good one Ali:)
for me success is being able to manage all my life fields successfully (career, relationship, spiritual…..etc)


Ali March 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

Archan, thanks for that — and yes, I agree that some people are so inspiring that it can really open your eyes to a whole different way of living/being.

Bob, great point. Yes, sometimes part of the journey is about realising that you actually want to end up somewhere a bit different! I agree it’s about having a balance — not being too rigid, but not being too uncertain either.

Julius, thanks for that, glad this post could help. I think we all fall into the comparison trap … and we forget that sometimes other people see us as inspirational/successful/etc. (I’m always a bit thrown by this when it happens to me… especially in the blogopshere, where I feel like I’m very small fry!)

Kat, I’m totally with you on that one — I try to write down a list of key achievements each month: anything new that I’ve tried for the first time (like giving a seminar, going to a conference, etc), any particular writing achievements (finishing Draft 2 will be in there for March!) and so on.

Farouk, cheers! :-)


J.D. Meier March 9, 2010 at 5:47 pm

“Success should be concrete” .. well put!

There’s something very solidifying about that.
.-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Less is More, Slower is Better =-.


Helen Calder March 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

I enjoy your posts Ali, and this is a great one.
Congrats on the novel!
I agree with you that success should not be something nebulous, but something that is tied to our goals, something concrete that we can pat ourselves on the back for. My world has been improved greatly this year by a list of goals that I have on my office wall, and yes! I am gradually ticking them off. It feels great and is keeping me on track. Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration.
.-= Helen Calder´s last blog ..e-Books To Help You Develop Your Prophetic And Prayer Ministry =-.


Ali March 10, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Thanks JD! :-)

Helen, glad to hear that things are improving for you — I think having a visual reminder of goals is a great idea (and something I should do a bit more myself!)


Alex Blackwell March 11, 2010 at 11:18 am


Congratulations on completing this important milestone! BTW, I think the cover is awesome.



Jeniffer March 11, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Another measure of success for you may well be finding and keeping new readers to your site. You succeeded in getting another subscriber (me!). Awesome post–congratulations on the novel! Makes me believe I can do the blog and the novel, too! PS–your name on the cover stands out just fine the way it is. The cover looks great!


Vlad Dolezal March 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Alright, the post is up!

See the CommentLuv link below this comment. Just thought I’d give you heads up, Ali, since you expressed interest ;)
.-= Vlad Dolezal´s last blog ..A Fulfilling Life Is Dynamic, Not Static =-.


Shauna March 12, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Well done on all that awesome writing Ali! That number count alone is a triumph if you ask me! Love the draft cover too :)
.-= Shauna´s last blog ..Sermon on the Blog =-.


Ali March 12, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Thanks Alex, Jeniffer and Shauna! I “borrowed” the cover pic from the net — since I’m just printing the books for me & friends — and it is indeed fab! And definitely do-able … it’s taken a year and a half to get to this point, but it’s been a lot of fun writing it.

Vlad, awesome post — I’ll pop the permalink here, and encourage people to go and read it:


Waqas Ali March 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Indeed a great article. You really wrote awesome.
You mentioned about “over-ambitious planning” is a kind of failure cause. Please explain that.

Thank you very much.
.-= Waqas Ali´s last blog ..Books – Reading – Happiness =-.


Ali March 15, 2010 at 12:15 am

Waqas, I probably need to write a whole blog post on “over-ambitious planning”…! What I mean is that it’s easy to plan too much — it might look possible on paper, but it isn’t necessarily very realistic. And if we don’t achieve what we’ve planned, it can be very discouraging and feel like failure … but the problem isn’t that we didn’t work hard enough, it’s that we planned badly!


Sherri Frost March 18, 2010 at 1:45 am

You are so right that we must have a concrete goal in order to know if we are successful. I find that most people are not really tuned in to what they feel is successful, instead they have heard so much in the movies or media about what defines success that they often chase after something they don’t really want. They don’t find out until they get there. I’ve been guilty of this many times myself.


Ali March 21, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Yes – it’s so easy to start running after someone’s else’s definition of success. I think it’s a mistake we all make!


Evelyne @ NLP Skills November 18, 2010 at 5:26 am

Great article, Ali. Success is often likened to happiness. People say: when you’re successful you’re happy. That’s not quite true although both concepts, success and happiness, are closely related. We could say: success is getting what you want, and happiness is wanting what you get. Now, while there is some overlap, it’s also true that happy people are usually successful, but successful people are not always happy. Yes, I agree with you, Ali, what does success mean to each of us?
.-= Evelyne @ NLP Skills´s last blog ..A helping Hand for Helping Hands… =-.


Ali November 18, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Thanks Evelyne – good point that success and happiness aren’t exactly the same. We can achieve a lot of “success” by the world’s standards (or even our own) – money, possessions, status, etc – but it doesn’t inevitably bring happiness.


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