(This is the second installment in a series of articles about success.)

Two weeks ago I wrote a Weekly Insight that made the point that we should define ourselves by who we are, not by what we do. (Click here for the article.) That article was the first of a series on success.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with my definition of success. This definition, which I will share in a few minutes, is the product of almost forty-five years of reading, studying, teaching, and trying to live out the principles of success.

The beginnings of my pursuit of what success is and how to live successfully began when I was seventeen. By this time, I had established a successful lawn cutting business that I had started when I was thirteen. However, in the summer of 1971, St. Louis experienced a severe drought and the lawns that I had contracted to cut each week dried up. (This was before sprinkler systems were widely installed in the St. Louis area.)

When the lawns dried up, they no longer needed cutting. Of course, this meant my income declined quickly as well.

Provoked by my mom – who was constantly motivated to find ways to keep me productively busy – I answered a newspaper advertisement for a new business. It turned out to be an opportunity to become an Amway distributor. The business was selling soap and other products and also included trying to convince people to become distributors under me.

While I made some money selling Amway over the next few years, the financial return on my time was probably less than minimum wage. Yet, what I learned through the experience, both directly and from the knowledge I was exposed to, changed the way I thought and the way I have lived my life for the last forty years.

I was raised in a home that was loving. My siblings and I were encouraged to study, work hard, and pick an honorable career. Special emphasis was placed on a career choice that would help people. Things like being a priest, a doctor, or doing something else in the medical field, were seen as especially admirable. However, concurrent with these positive concepts, like in most work and home environments, the day-to-day environment we were raised in was primarily negative.

When I joined the soap-selling world of Amway, I met a group of people who were highly motivated and who were becoming positive thinkers. Part of the Amway experience was going to seminars and listening to successful people talk about how to become successful. We were also encouraged to read positive-thinking books and listen to recordings of great motivational speakers. As a result of this experience, I began to pursue re-programming my mind to think in a world of possibilities instead of the world of limitations I lived in.

Ultimately, I owned a business that worked with the well-known motivational speaker Brian Tracy. As a result of this experience, I began to do public speaking and training on leadership, personal development and what it takes to be successful. I have also done consulting on leadership and personal development for more than twenty years.

My personal success targets and how I view them have changed significantly from the early types of success that I pursued. Part of my purpose in sharing my definition of success with you today is to save you the time that I wasted in pursuing wrong concepts of success. My hope is that you will be able to concentrate on right things to discover what success should look like for you.

Before I share what I believe success is, I want to list a number of things that are often thought of as success, but are not.

  1. Wealth. We need not look far to find wealthy people who are very unhappy or who have alienated all people close to them. While it is tempting to say that I would rather be unhappy and rich than unhappy and poor, I am not sure that unhappy and rich is better. In my consulting work through the years, I have met many rich people whose misery is astounding. It turns out, if wealth is a by-product of living successfully, it is a generally a good thing. But if wealth is your sole goal in life, it is unlikely that you will be wealthy and happy.
  2. Fame. Heath Ledger. Robin Williams. Marilyn Monroe. Need I go on? In our celebrity-obsessed world, the average person pursues and wants to be a celebrity. At the same time, those who have reached celebrity status strive for privacy or to keep their distance from their worshipers so they can live their lives. And everyone’s five minutes of fame passes away as the next hot actor or musician steals their limelight. In the end, fame destroys many of those who have it. It can also warp those who place their hopes and self-worth on identifying with the celebrities they worship.
  3. Power. I have worked for some incredibly powerful people through the years. I have also read many biographies of powerful people. The common thread of each of these people is that, if driven by power without other strong values and beliefs, they were unhappy and lonely people. It also explains why people in power often treat others badly. They seem to have an inherent need to spread their own misery to those around them.
  4. Goals. Goals are great things. They are motivators. They help us achieve the things we want to achieve. But achieving goals is not success. Achieving goals is part of the process of living out our success. Obsession with constantly striving to achieve goals can become a debilitating trap that causes us to never have any peace.
  5. Untouchable. Success is not getting to a comfortable place in life and staying there. It does not mean reaching a certain level where we can’t be criticized or where the ups and downs of life can’t impact us. Isolating ourselves from the world around us will not make us happy. In fact, maintaining the status quo leads to boredom which then often leads to a destructive lifestyle of laziness, substance abuse, or worse. Humans are not made to sit around in a comfortable rut. Creating a world for yourself where you have no worries and no purpose other than to exist comfortably can be a terrible prison. Unfortunately, this can be the dungeon of retirement or early financial wealth.
  6. Circumstance. Just as what you do does not define who you are, success is not defined by your circumstances. Success is based on who you are, and by how and why you interact with the world around you. Circumstance is the canvas on which we paint who we are. The painting is not the artist. Our environment allows us to see the impact of who we are, both good and bad, as we affect the world around us.

So, what is success?

True success means that we figure out the gifts and strengths that we have been given and then use these abilities to impact the world around us. So success, primarily, is learning who you are. At the same time, it requires that you use this knowledge to pour into the lives of the people and causes around you. Whether you believe you have been shaped by evolution, fate, or by God, the first step to success is to figure out who you are. Once you figure this out, to fully experience success you need to begin to use this knowledge to impact the world around you, especially the people you love.