What Does Success Look Like?

A few weeks ago I spent two days talking about success with business and marketing students at my alma mater. It was an intense experience to walk the halls where I once studied and explored and dreamed toward the future I imagined ahead of me.

“What does success look like?” one of the bright-eyed ones asked.
“How did you get from sitting where we are, to where you are now? How did you go from student to eventual author, director, producer?”

Her unspoken question also hung in the air, “How did you accomplish this… as a woman?”
Her unexpressed doubt hung there equally, “And if you did, then could I possibly do so too?”

I’ve been chewing on that ever since. This idea that success is something to be measured and quantified against preconceived goals. Because that’s how we all start out… If I make this much money, or achieve that title, or have this type of wedding, or drive that type of car… then I will have achieved success. I will be somebody. But who will you be with those things? Whom do those things make you?

The eager young woman asking those questions wanted very much to admire me as “a success”. It was oozing from her, palpable. She needed me to be someone she could emulate, hoping perhaps that my formulas for choice and decision-making could become hers, and in the following of them she would achieve her own “success”.

I told the auditorium filled with students that success looks a lot less like a direct trajectory, and a lot more like a plate of spaghetti. Twists and turns and tunnels, and limp noodles tied into knots…

That’s all true. Success is rarely achieved in a direct line. Anything valuable most often arrives hand in hand with an unenviable dose of heartache, failures, humiliations, and lessons badly learned. You must walk a few laps with Job, or many…

But as I’ve pondered since, I wish I had answered her question differently.

SUCCESS(1)I wish I had told her  she had it upside down.
I wish I had said success has very little to do with things like becoming a director or producer.
Or being on TV.
Or working with uber cool clients.
Or publishing a book.
Or going back and speaking at your alma mater.

Those things are fun. They look good on a resume. They complete a digital portfolio nicely.

But they are not success.

Success is…

  • going to sleep with a clean conscience at night.
  • seeing your child choose the Jesus-thing, instead of the world-thing, and then come dashing over joyfully to share it with you.
  • confronting injustice and being an active part of resolution for the oppressed.
  • living in harmony with those you love most.
  • doing something kind to someone who has absolutely nothing to offer you in return.
  • knowing that even in the face of great pain or loss, you have clung to your core values without flinching.
  • finishing the day’s to-do list and knowing it was accomplished with a measure of excellence, no matter how trivial the content.
  • being vulnerable enough to embrace honesty when you knew you were wrong, and allowing a friend to put you in your place without hating them for doing so.
  • deciding to do that really hard thing, because it’s right, instead of the fun or easy or comfortable thing that is gonna nag your conscience.

Success. has. absolutely. nothing. to. do. with. occupation.
Or accomplishment.
Or prestige.
Or fame.

Success is a matter of the heart.

That is what I wish I had said.

Reprinted with permission from Sarah’s blogYou can purchase Sarah’s book here: ONE FACE: Shed the Mask, Own Your Values, and Lead Wisely.

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Sarah McDugal

Sarah McDugal is a branding strategist, leadership speaker and author. She's also a homeschooling single mom who never has enough time to do #allthethings, and sometimes leaves dirty dishes in the sink longer than she probably should.

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