To define what success means to is, first we have to learn to differentiate our goals from the goals others may have set for us. Then we have to find ways to beat back our fear of failure.

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Everybody wants to be successful, but success can mean different things for different people.

A driven few will not be satisfied until they’ve reached the pinnacle of their chosen fields. The frank majority that wants and needs a certain income will naturally define success that way. Some put their emphasis on excellence — fame and money mean less to them than simply becoming really good at a thing they love to do. Others find fulfillment in helping humanity; they are all about service and community. Finally, a lot of people, more than you’d think, are satisfied with “ordinary” jobs that leave them time for family, passionate hobbies or avocations.

You may in fact discover that you will work your way through several of these definitions as you move through life.

No matter how you define it, the pursuit of “success” is fraught with pitfalls. First we have to learn to differentiate our goals from the goals others may have set for us. Then we have to find ways to beat back our fear of failure, which too often prevents us from taking even baby steps toward our dreams. Worse, we may waste time going down paths that turn out to be wrong for us, and extricating ourselves from situations we have erroneously committed ourselves to.

But there is one major obstacle to success few people talk about. It is this: You can’t be successful without ever defining for yourself what success is.

After all, without a clear view of the target we’ll never know which way to aim.

Of course, success can also be somewhat of a moving target — attaining one goal often spurs us to setting additional challenges for ourselves. However, we can’t move on to a new goal until we have accomplished the first one, and we won’t know we’ve accomplished the first one unless we have articulated it.

But the biggest reason it’s important to define what success is to you is the very real possibility that you could attain your heart’s desire without fully realizing it. Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a lot of us already possess the keys to the kingdom of happiness. But because we’ve never described for ourselves what that kingdom looks like, we don’t recognize it when we get there.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at wg@karenburnsworkinggirl.com.