5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Define What Success Means to You

Most people have heard of value-based decision-making, a simple process through which our personal values are illustrated by how we choose to spend our time. For example, if you value family, you might choose to designate an hour or two each week to talk to them on the phone. I was first exposed to the principle while learning about values-based leadership in a course, during which my professor encouraged students to think deeply about their values. 

For me, college complicated this principle. I’d often find myself spending almost the entirety of my day in my room, plugging away on my computer doing work for classes and extracurriculars. I, luckily, often found time to socialize, whether it was a girls’ night with friends or a phone call with a family member, but I soon realized that the extreme imbalance between my work life and my personal life didn’t reflect my ultimate values, one of which mandates building strong friendships. This past semester, however, I resolved to change that, and spend more of my time in a way that was meaningful to me. After all, to me, a life worth living is one that adheres to my values and provides me with a basis of morals and priorities to tailor my goals to. In order to figure out what would be most meaningful to me, I had to ask myself a few questions. Here are the five that helped me find my own definition of success. 

  1. 1. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

    Coffee next to planner

    Some days it’s harder to get out of bed and start your day than others, and those days  are really an opportunity for reflection. What motivates you to get up and go? Is it human connection? Career or academic success? What about serving your community? Asking yourself this question can open the door to values-based decision-making and illuminate which areas of your life you should spend your time in. 

    For me, the answer to this question took on many forms. On one hand, I know myself to be very social and extroverted with the right group of friends. From this realization, I then decided to dedicate more of my time to forming connections with the people in my life. I also discovered, as an extension of my perfectionism, that I value academic excellence; so, it’s no surprise that I decided to maintain my current commitment to schoolwork so long as it stayed sustainable. Finally, despite all of this, I also value leisure and having time for myself. Fortunately, I have found a way to incorporate free time into my daily life by making exercise and reading a priority on days with a lighter workload.

  2. 2. Where do you want to end up?

    writing in book with cup of coffee and croissant

    I’m going to start off by saying that it’s ok if you don’t know the answer to this question in its entirety, but, most people are sure to have some idea of what they want their future to look like. Maybe you know that you want to try and have it all – a family, a rewarding career, a flourishing social life, and tons of hobbies. Or maybe you want to take a more relaxed route, working just enough to support a lifestyle of your choosing. Or, maybe none of these sound appealing to you, and you want to take life as it comes at you one step at a time. No matter how you answer this question, you can still make choices that speak to your ultimate goals. For example, if you’re more of a “go with the flow” kind of person, you could make it a priority to expose yourself to as many opportunities as possible so you can pick the right option when the time comes around. 

    Personally, I know where I wanna be. Going to law school has been an ultimate goal of mine since high school; so, when I entered college I knew exactly what I had to do to achieve that goal. Having this realization early was definitely a great advantage of mine, as it has helped me shape how I spend my time.

  3. 3. Who are the most important people in your life?

    This question has the potential to be the easiest answer on this list, but don’t discount the importance of your answer. I’ve always had a close relationship with my immediate family, and although college has put some distance between us I still find time to have a phone conversation once a week. College has also brought me closer to my friends, all of which are fortunately just a few minutes away. Finally, I also choose to find time to talk to my long-distance boyfriend either on the phone or on FaceTime about three times a week. The relationships I have with these people are more than just a way to spend my time – they’re the key to my happiness and, thus, my success. Identifying the people that are most important in your life can help make your values-based decision-making even stronger as you are challenged to make time for what you prioritize.

  4. 4. What do your support systems look like?

    This question is arguably the most important. When the going gets tough, who or what is there for you? For some people, connecting with others is their go-to, and I know the same is true for me. I’m not ashamed to admit when I’m faced with the task of cooking for myself after a long day of work and Zoom calls, I’ll text my mom and ask for cooking tips. This shows just how simple support systems can be – just a person that’s always there for you when you need it. For others, physical health can be a support system as well. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to crave a good walk or gym sesh after a particularly stressful day. In the end, all that matters is that you know where you can get help when you need it. When you exercise this level of self-awareness, you can make the right choices to prioritize maintaining and building those support systems.

  5. 5. Where do you spend your time now?

    Woman in bed surrounded by laptop and books

    Ok, now take everything you’ve learned, all the little tidbits of information and self-reflection you’ve gleaned throughout this process, and apply that same lens to your current lifestyle. Do your values align with how you currently go about your day? If they do, lucky you, you should have to make very few changes. If they don’t, no worries! Making changes in your lifestyle doesn’t have to be immediate. In fact, even applying the reflection you’ve done on just a small daily basis can be helpful without changing up your whole life. Let’s say you know you have an hour of free time in between commitments, and you know that you prioritize physical and mental health. Although it’s tempting to scroll through TikTok, and hey, sometimes that’s what we need in the moment, but it may be worthwhile to consider going for a walk or calling a friend or family member as an alternative. Above all, remember to listen to what your body is telling you. It can be so easy to push aside rest, eating a good meal, or having a good cry, but listening to the cues your body is giving you is one of the best ways to apply value-based decision-making in your life. Making the decision to live your values, and apply that knowledge to how you spend your time, will ultimately provide you with a solid basis to achieve your goals.

In my opinion, living a fulfilling life lies in spending your time on this Earth in a way that’s meaningful to you. Some great tools for this awareness are journaling, surrounding yourself with those who share your values, using a planner, and taking personality tests. Making decisions that correlate to this is difficult and in some circumstances impossible, but doing a brief analysis of the place your values hold in your life every once in a while is a great way to ensure you’re going through life in the way you want to.