How Do You Define Success?

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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How Do You Define Success

I watched the clouds slowly shift, the sky sliding east. The gray twilight sky was striped with crosses and steeples that topped brick buildings, stores and churches, in front of the wall of moving clouds. The air was cool, and it had just finished raining.

Outside on the cafe balcony where I sipped my cappuccino, there were flower boxes full of purple and orange pansies and sage. Some of the flowers were still shining with droplets of water from the afternoon rain.

The world was so beautiful, and I felt so alive, in the cool air, on a gray night, watching the clouds move. I knew in that moment there was nothing else I needed to do but be a witness to life, to its exquisite beauty, just watching the clouds slide by, just loving the gold light from the streetlamps and the storefronts, as it lit the darkening evening.

A Refreshing Break from Thinking

The afternoon had not been so pleasant. I had spent it spinning, in my head, about needing to have all the answers for how to brand my business as I move forward with launching my life-coaching website. I’d come up with some ideas that at least for a moment seemed dazzlingly brilliant to me, but not everyone I ran them by agreed that they were genius.

Some people liked the concepts, and others felt that there were other ways of branding me that would better capture my “essence.” All in all, I got some good, sound feedback from a handful of people who know me well. It was worth reflecting on and digesting.

Yet at the same time, I felt this wave of pressure rising up within me that I needed to immediately have all the answers in order to make my business a success. Like, now!

As my ideas about how to brand my business were questioned, I started to wonder how I would ever do it all and create what I wanted to create. I got swept up in a wave of self-doubt that lasted for a few hours before cresting in a breakthrough.

What Does Being A Success Mean to You?

I realized at the tail-end of the “spin,” as I sipped my cappuccino and watched the clouds slide by, that I’d been judging myself for not having all the answers right now, for not getting it “perfect” somehow in terms of mapping out my new business. Some part of me felt like there was some magic answer that was somehow eluding me, and that I would never get it right.

Yet when I look back on all of my greatest successes in life so far, I usually didn’t “have all the answers” about how to create success. I made it up as I went along.

I followed my heart’s desires to where they led me, whether it was traveling through the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe by myself, or writing my book manuscript.

I took the steps I needed to take in each moment and stayed open to watching for what I needed to do next to make my projects a success.

Of course, as a planner by nature, I prefer to map everything out well in advance because it’s comforting. It feels good to have a game plan to follow. It makes life feel less risky, and makes me feel more sure-footed.

That said everything I’ve ever done that has made me feel like a success was the result of following my heart, not just going “according to plan.”

Letting Go of Identity Labels


There have been times when following my heart felt absolutely terrifying. When I decided to travel alone for a few months in 2006, wanting to heal my heart and get my sense of confidence back as a single woman in the world again after separating from my ex-husband, I was scared to make the leap, terrified that I was doing the wrong thing.

Wasn’t I “supposed” to be focused on building my exciting government career? Did I really “deserve” to have this opportunity to travel the world?

It was a time in my life when I could no longer wear the “labels” that had defined my identity for so long. I was no longer Adrian’s wife. I was no longer a swing dance instructor, since I stopped teaching after Adrian and I separated.

I was no longer a Harvard student. I was no longer working for the City and County of San Francisco. For the moment, I was just a woman in my thirties who wanted to “find herself” and for whom traveling felt like a call of the soul.

The few months that I spent overseas were life-changing. I felt strong again, independent again, sexy again. I felt like I could do anything again! But it was hard for a while to get used to not having any labels about “who” I am.

What if I am just me? Making it up as I go along? What if that is what we are all really doing deep down inside?

What if we are not meant to have all the answers, all at once? What if life really is just continuously evolving?

Living Life Moment by Moment

For me at least, most of the greatest events and successes of my life happened because I followed my passions and took a risk. I rarely felt as though I knew how to create what I wanted before I started.

I have so often made it up as I go along. I hold a vision for what I want to create, get in action and then see where it leads me. Along the way, I improvise, and I find that the universe generally supports me in creating what I want.

I know I have the ability to create amazing things, because I have done it over and over in my life.

Yet there are times when I still fall into the abyss of fear or self-doubt, when I wonder how I’ll make it work this time. In those moments, it can feel as though my “success” rests on “figuring it all out” right now and knowing how my life will go. There are times when I want to have the game plan all mapped out, now, so I feel in control.

What if I could let go of the need to know the future, and just trust in what I’m doing and creating now? What if I could let go of the need to have all the answers?

What Is Success Anyhow?

In those moments when the self-doubt and fear take over, it’s usually because I’ve made up some story in my head about how things “should” be, and attached my self-worth and value in that moment to that story. So if I think I “should” be further along than I am, and I’m attached to that, then I feel like I’m letting myself or the world down if I’m not “there” yet, wherever “there” happens to be.

Yet the truth is that some events in my life happened miraculously fast, with everything clicking into place almost immediately, and other “successes” took a lot longer to created, with more bumps in the road and obstacles along the way. That doesn’t mean those successes were worth any less, and in fact they often left me with a greater sense of reward in the end, knowing what I had overcome to make it happen.

I have often questioned myself when I felt that my life wasn’t unfolding as I thought it “should” or judged myself according to what I thought others might think about it. Which is so silly when you think about it really, since other people’s opinions of me are none of my business, and no one else can truly know what is best for me on my life path.

There have been times when I worried that my Harvard classmates wouldn’t think I was doing anything “serious” enough since I’ve decided against running for public office, at least for now. My writing, teaching, coaching and traveling feel like a calling for now, as does helping others to find emotional freedom by letting go of stories that are causing them suffering.

Clearly, I have to still remind myself sometimes to not buy into the stories in my mind that make me suffer!

Loving myself and others even when I’m not “perfect” and don’t meet my own current definition of success is also success! Since none of us are “perfect,” and no one can “get it right” all the time.

How Do You Define Success?

I think it’s easy to judge ourselves if we decide there is a “right” or “wrong” way to do things, and if we think we’re not doing it “right,” or think there is some other way that it “should” be done, or think that others would judge us for what we are doing! Really, this is all a mind game, because who can say what is “right” or “wrong” in this world, and who can know what is right for you but you?

Maybe true success is more about learning to follow the call of our hearts, despite any doubts and fears, no matter how it all evolves. Maybe success is trying even when we’re afraid. Maybe success is getting up again every time we fall down.

Maybe success is loving ourselves, no matter what. And enjoying life, even when it is not going our way!

How we define success can greatly affect our happiness in the moment. So take the time to ask yourself:

  1. How do you define success? (not how your neighbors define it, or society, or your parents, but what truly matters to you most in your heart of hearts? It is worth spending the time to reflect on this!)
  2. Can you love yourself even when you’re not meeting all of your own criteria for “success” in the moment?
  3. Can you trust in how life is unfolding?

For me at least I am happiest when I remember that I have intrinsic value, just in being who I am, no matter what I am doing. We are human “beings,” after all, not human “doings,” right? And when I remember that if I am loving myself and others, that in the end is what really matters most to me.

Here’s to your success!


  • This is so true: “I think it’s easy to judge ourselves if we decide there is a “right” or “wrong” way to do things, and if we think we’re not doing it “right,” or think there is some other way that it “should” be done, or think that others would judge us for what we are doing.”

    I call this “chicken-boning” where we pick our actions to the bone.

    I define success by the love of my son and when I fall asleep at night did I spend the most of the day that was given to me.

    Lovely post.


  • awww <3 LOVE YOU KRISTI! and love what you had to say about this… You are so right. :) I will continue to follow my own heart on the path, knowing that it will always guide me to the next steps, and that those who are seeking what I teach and offer will be drawn to me.

    I so often feel like the luckiest person in the world to walk this path with YOU! Sooo blessed <3