How do you define success?

This week I had the honor of speaking on a panel about career transitions at the Women Lead Change Conference. The most compelling question (thank you Patti Seda!) that I considered and discussed with others for the days following was, “How do you define success?” Let’s start with the definition of success: the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. 

What was fun and fascinating to discover is that each person’s definition was different depending on their values, priorities, and their season in life…where they were aiming. Some women were in their first job trying to be their best at work, some were newly married and being the best wife would deem them successful, for others it was being a good mom or the best person they could be to everyone they met.

Culture portrays success as fame, fortune, a big house with a boat and a nice car, a beautiful and perfect family with power and money as the gauges of success. What if instead, we used love and peace as our gauges? How would our goals and our definition of success look different?

I had goals oriented toward power and money for most of my life. I dumped so much time and energy into achieving, climbing, and acquiring that one day I woke up in New York City with people all around me, money in the bank, and awards on the shelf, but felt lonelier and more unhappy than ever. I had invested so much time in my career that I hadn’t left any for myself, my friends, my family, or my faith. I was giving work the best of me and giving the rest of me to my family, my friends, and to God.

I may have been successful with power and money as my aim by climbing the corporate ladder, acquiring titles and achievements, accumulating more stuff, and hustling until I hurt, but I wasn’t the person I wanted to be nor was I building the life I wanted to have. Love and peace were absent.

When I think about people I want to model my life after, my grandparents come to mind. They have so much love and joy in their life. You can feel it when you’re around them. They don’t have much and haven’t traveled many places. They didn’t have fancy careers or extraordinary experiences. I’ve been asking them for years, “What is your secret? How have you been able to sustain a life full of such love and joy no matter what happens?” They always look at me sideways, giggle, and don’t know how to answer.

A few weeks ago I wrote them in hopes they would be easier writing down the secret and sending it in the mail instead of discussing it face-to-face. They answered in a one-page letter with the answer they had been giving me my entire life…I just couldn’t believe until now it was really that simple. In short form, the answer was:

Work as hard as you can, love as much as you can, and trust that God will do the rest. 

They found purpose in work no matter what the task. They made intentional time for love…with each other, with family and friends, and with the less fortunate. They found peace in fully trusting God with whatever they faced. A Bible verse they shared with me was Psalm 139: 1-6 which reads:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Their definition of success is to courageously live a life modeled by Jesus. One that is generous, patient, loving, and forgiving. The last 2 lines of the letter confirms hat peace and love have been the gauges of their success. They read, “God is always with us in everything we do and say. May He also fill you up with all the love you can hold.” I am grateful to have them as a model for my own life and definition of success.


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