My Evolving Definition of Success

We all try hard in life to attain “success”. But what is success? More money in the account, more time with family or both? And how can we achieve both without sacrificing the other?

This is a personal struggle and I believe it’s more integral in human society than we might like to admit. We all struggle to find a definition for success. At one point success is money made, at another point it is the number of people you influenced, at one point it is winning a 100-meter race at another point it is raising kids whom you are proud of. The definition is fluid.

I have also struggled with the question for years. About 4 years ago I stumbled on a TED Talk by John Wooden (The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding), that day and over the period of meditating on it, my definition of success had changed. John used a profound story to wrap up what to him would be termed as a success.

“At God’s footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt and bowed his head. ‘I failed!’ he cried. The Master said, ‘Thou didst thy best, that is success.”

From that day on, I adopted this definition of success for myself. If I had given it my best, the outcome of my best will not determine my success, my best alone is enough. The ensuing months, and years have been profound. But here I am again evolving in my definition of success.

The Evolution

Two things have lingered for so long in my heart.

One, at the point of death, I’ve heard different stories of people having a rethink about their life and redefining the very fabrics upon which they’ve lived there while life. The get to there death bed and all that they have erstwhile defined as success begins to change. It is no longer the number of gold medals nor is it the number of applause. In fact, not the amount of dollar in the bank account. All of which Clayton Christensen referred to as “summary statistics”. They are basically thinking about what success is to them. But as all will admit, it is usually too late for the majority by the time they start to reconsider.

This year started with me reading the book “AI Superpowers” by Kai-Fu Lee (a respected fellow in the field of AI)

My goal of picking up the book is definitely not to learn something about success as is to learn about the future of AI and the power play between Silicon Valley and China. But as life would have it, Kai-Fu Lee happened to have been close to death as well and like all who came close to this, he needed to redefine success and ask the question what really matters? What really counts? Seeing that is where the real definition of success begins.

Before his near-death experience, he has lived his life as an “optimization machine”. Simply put, as an optimization machine, he gave his best and went extra mile for the things that qualify to fall under “summary statistics” while giving the minimum possible to things that can not be quantified but yet required his attention (this principally includes time with family).

The result, he had a stellar career that took him from Microsoft to Google and later as a Venture Capitalist leading the new wave of venture funding in China. He was obviously a role model for all ambitious Chinese youths. That wasn’t just all, he also built a beautiful family who loves him, cares for him and which got the minimum possible of his time just to ensure all dimensions of his life are optimized.

Beautiful result! You said. I also believed that.

I believed it until he went on to tell stories of regret about how what he had optimized his life for so far isn’t what he would call success. The summary statistics weren’t enough.

He wished he had spent more time with family, love more, be useful more to humanity in a new dimension that summary statistics can’t understand.

But that’s was not all about it. After reading this part of Kai-Fu’s story, I asked myself, how would I live my own life? What will I optimize for? What will I define success as?

I was selfish and maybe hard-hearted.

I told myself, I would rather also have my story like that of Kai-Fu. Optimize the early stage for “summary statistics”, then learn later in life that that is not what matters then make a pivot. By then, I thought money will be plenty, medals countless and stories to tell.

Don’t blame me so much for thinking that way. Remember I said at the beginning that I have read a lot of similar stories like his.

First, optimize for summary statistics, then come close to death and realize that it was all not a right optimization then make a pivot to the right lane. That way, you benefit from both worlds.

I literally thought that was the only way to benefit from both worlds.

But I was wrong again.

All through life, defining success for what it really is has been a concern. And many times when we think about it, money comes to mind seeing it is on of the few things (summary statistics) that can quickly tell if our effort is producing value and proffer perception (illusion) of success.

While it’s absolutely good and one should chase it, it turns out that it is never enough and in fact, if its pairs were mutually exclusive, giving it up over other things that can not be explained by summary statistics is always the best bet. And this brings me to my second part of the two things that have lingered in my heart.

I had an epiphany and a coming together of different bodies of knowledge when I heard of Clayton’s death. The many testimonies about this 6’8 tall man reinforced my epiphany.

But before the epiphany, let me pick from where I stopped on the first narrative.

Why did I think of going the normal route as all I’ve read of – the route of optimising first for summary statistics and then making a pivot upon realization of the wrong optimization? 

For a simple and not counter-intuitive reason. I thought the pursuit of summary statistics and other things unexplainable by summary statistics are mutually exclusive. The pursuit of one means letting go of the other.

And I thought that way because all stories I’ve read seems to be that way.

The ones who optimized for summary statistics tend to give up on other experiences and the ones who chose other experiences gave up significantly on summary statistics.

However, I wanted both.

So the way I could see that happening was to follow the footsteps of those that I see ahead. Do one first then, follow the other later in life.

The death of Clayton brought a rather paradigm-changing epiphany.

“You could pursue both concurrently was what Clayton’s life preached to me. I could see it more obviously from testimonies about him, books he wrote, articles he wrote and lectures that he gave.”

Clayton faced a similar dilemma as I did and his faith in God above all else saw him through and I believe it was so in order for him to be a living testimony.

He also discovered quickly by the virtue of his work that all we face is the “dilemma of resource allocation” in the face of conflicting interests. Learning to appropriately allocate that resource (time) between those things that can be explained by summary statistics and those that cannot is our goal.

Another thing he quickly learned as well was that those things that cannot be explained by summary statistics are weighing more in gold than the counterpart. Realising this made him allocate his resources optimally for all interests of his.

He practically lived his life as a beacon of light to all around him and beyond including me whom he never met until he died.

These two events or call it worldview have come to shape my new definition of success.

My New Definition of Success

“Success to me now is a moment thing. It is fluid and not static. It evolves but predictable. It is mostly wrapped on the moments when I contribute to another person’s betterment and upliftment. Success is gotten not just from me exclusively but from my interaction with the world around me. How I have better and extend its life.”

And if I must introduce a summary statistics to my view of success, it must be one that is hinged on output instead of input.

Output: how much have I given to those who in my wildest dream I cannot except them to repay me? How many hours of my time have I sacrificially given to make someone else better and develop? How many did I point to the way of God?

Input: how much did I make in an hour? How many gold medals did I win? How many hours did I spend studying for the next exam that will help get a promotion?

Output not input is the way about my new view of success.

I have chosen to still bring in the concept of summary statistics because I understand the fundamental human craving for statistics. Our brain is really wired to value these summary statistics.

What will not be allowed is for the wrong summary statistics to find its way into the new paradigm.

But why does it matter that we get our definition of success right?

I think the reason should have been apparent from foregoing. But I will take time to spell it out.

It’s important that we define success for ourselves so that we can optimize for the most efficient and rewarding thing early on.

I am fond of asking the question…

What are you optimizing for?

Except you define success for yourself, you might find it hard, really hard optimizing for what really matters to you.

Defining success then gives you focus, a sense of purpose and sets you ablaze to pursue hard after what matters to you.

That is why I have taken it upon myself to define success in a very personal way. Because it is my life.

Finally but not finally

I started by telling you the story of how we all search for a definition, John Wooden for me gave the best definition I have found until that time. Now I have developed my own definition by connecting different dots. Does that mean I am discarding my earlier definition of success which is “giving one’s best to a course and taking that as a success instead of the outcome of such course?”

No, I have not and will not. There is an intersection between both, one definition is about giving your best, the other is about service to others. What I have learnt is that service to others can be a lot of work, sometimes you even get badly rewarded for doing so. But that is where the intersection lies, not the outcome of the course but you giving your best to the course. The course in this scenario being service to others.

What my new definition of success has then allowed me to do is to be more focused optimizing for the right metrics in my life as a new way of viewing success.