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Rethinking our understanding of success

Success is a slippery word.

To one person, a successful life is one of fame and riches. To another, success might mean popularity. Someone else might think success is happiness and contentment.


In order to rethink our understanding of success, we first need to establish what our current understanding of it is, and with so many varied understandings of the word, this is easier said than done.


So, what does it mean to you? 


I asked friends and family members what success means to them, and the variety of responses was a testament to the elusive nature of the word.


Some people gave specific goals of what their version of success is, for example: ‘having a job that I love AND can happily live off’, ‘a healthy work / life balance and waking up every day feeling motivated’, ‘letting go of capitalist expectations of productivity and being fulfilled with myself’. Others considered success simply as ‘happiness’.


One friend recognised the superlative associations with the word ‘success’, and the problems that this throws up: ‘I would say that I currently see success in a negative way as being the best, looking your best, having the best job, but I would like to see success as being content in myself where I am in my life’. If you view success in comparison to other people, that you’re only successful if you are more successful than others, then fulfilment becomes even more elusive.


Most people responded with an interpretation of the dictionary definition of the word, which defines success as ‘the accomplishment of an aim or purpose’. Success ‘is achieving or exceeding your own expectations / goals for yourself’. One person made this definition specific to them: ‘if I am following my purpose, that is success for me. Feeling fulfilled is an important thing for me’.


One respondent noted that ‘every person should have their own definition of success because we all want different things’. The word ‘success’ is so difficult to pin down because of precisely this point. We are all unique, so our goals and aims are unique too. In this definition, however, the term ‘want’ throws up issues surrounding our current interpretation of success. The words ‘achievement’, ‘goal’ and ‘purpose’ pervaded the responses, and like the word ‘want’, these are all rooted in the future. All of these definitions look towards something that hasn’t happened yet.


Whilst it is important to set goals to motivate yourself, we must recognise that success is a moving goal post. If we consider success as something that exists in a future, we’ll be in a constant state of having not yet achieved our goals. And when we finally achieve this ambition, we’ll simply look towards the next thing we can succeed in.


Let’s rethink how we look at success.


We must remember to look backwards at the successes that we have already had, and the things that we have already achieved. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be at university thinking about the next deadline you need to submit and how best to succeed at it. As well as looking towards your next success, remember the previous successes that you have had over the course of your life. Your exams at school, your previous years of university, that internship you got in the summer of first year. But we can’t limit our definitions of success to the academic or professional realm. How about your relationships? The friends that you made in first year, your childhood friend who you are still in contact with now. How about your health? With Covid-19 looming wherever we go, remember the successes you have had in caring for yourself up to this point, nourishing your body with healthy food and going on regular walks to help your mental and physical health.


There might be aspects of your life that you feel unsuccessful in. I know the student lifestyle is not one of huge financial success, for example. But we can remember and recognise areas of our life where have been successful.  


Life has its ups and downs. It is impossible to be in a constant state of achievement, or success, so we must remind ourselves of how far we have come and be proud of that.

Emma Hanson

Bristol '20

I am an English Literature MA student at Bristol University.
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