Success: It's in the Eye of the Beholder

By Maria Nemeth
Success: It's in the Eye of the Beholder

Susan sits at her favorite café table on a summery Saturday morning, sipping cappuccino. She’s intelligent, good-looking, ambitious—and exhausted.

Susan: “I do everything I can to stay ahead. That’s exactly what you have to do in my profession. I’m a graphic designer. I have my own business. Setting it up took a lot more energy than I thought. Sure, I’ve got some clients now and I’ve been clearing about $6,000 each month for my own salary. And I have fun helping people achieve their marketing goals and dreams.

“But look at me. It’s Saturday morning. I have a mile-long list of things I have to do. During the week it’s all about networking, giving talks, making connections. Now there’re the chores that need doing. Oh, and the emails! I must get 80 a day. When will I have time just for me? Okay, I’m not talking about this morning. I give myself one hour to enjoy this coffee. What I really need is one week with nothing to do. Wait until I’m successful! Then I really will take some time off.”

We were having a conversation about what it’s like to be successful. I’ve heard hundreds of stories like this. People who are creative, committed and … tired. Too worn-out to enjoy what they’ve accomplished.

I’ve also listened to other accounts of people who aren’t making as much as Susan. People who are, in fact, just managing to stay ahead, men and women who have been finding it hard to put food on their family’s table. Jim is just such a person:

Jim: “I got laid off from my job as a construction manager. Business has been lousy. I finally got the idea to take out an ad letting people know I’m a great handyman. It’s been rough. But I’m lucky. People right now are more interested in fixing up their existing home than buying a new one. Even if they’re renting! I’m finally making some money. But this sure isn’t my picture of success!”

There are hundreds of variations to the above. All of us, at some time in our lives, have had a picture of what success could … or should … look like that has kept us from enjoying the present moment. And it is precisely this picture that has contributed to our sense of dissatisfaction with life.

In a June 2011 World Business article for entitled “U.S. doesn't make cut for happiest nations list,” Michael B. Sauter, Charles B. Stockdale and Douglas A. McIntyre reported that they analyzed data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Better Life Index (U.K. firm) to objectively determine the happiest countries in the world. The Index is based on 11 measurements of quality of life, including housing, income, jobs, community, education, the environment, health, work-life balance and life satisfaction. They made “life satisfaction” the cornerstone of their index because it is as good a proxy for “happiness” as the survey provides. The United States did not show up as one of the 10 happiest countries in the world.

Back to Susan, Jim and the rest of us: This dissatisfaction we experience could be due to the way we have defined success. In keeping with this, I suggest a way through this quagmire that has worked for the thousands of people with whom I’ve interacted during the past 40 years. The definition of success I propose is this:

Success is doing what you said you would do, consistently, with clarity, focus, ease and grace.

When you look at success this way, you can see that it is an “inside job.” It is not about comparing ourselves to some imaginary ideal that our tired brains have conjured up for us. Success seen this way doesn’t depend necessarily upon the quantity of what we possess, but upon the quality of our experience of life. In order to make this completely understandable, I am going to define the key elements in this new definition of success:

Clarity: By this I mean being clear about what is truly important to you. Of course, the top priority is food, clothing and shelter for your family. However, once that has been handled, there are so many additional pursuits that could make your heart sing. For example, do you wish to be physically fit and healthy, a creator of beauty, a loving parent, spouse or partner? How about being a contributor to your community, an adventurer, or spiritually developing? If these all sound interesting, you can go to my website at and request a copy of the Life’s Intentions Inventory. If you do, you’ll find a variety of Life’s Intentions that have meaning and relevance for you, both personally and professionally.

Focus: Focus is your ability to center your attention on what’s truly important. Ask yourself: “How much energy do I waste on worries and tasks that are irrelevant?” Along these lines, I’m reminded of that saying from Mark Twain:

“I am an old man and I’ve lived through many trials and tribulations, most of which never happened.”

For example, Susan discovered that every time she focused her energy on her Life’s Intentions to be a creator of beauty and a contributor to her community, her work went well. She found it much easier to talk to prospective clients about what she could do for them. She experienced harmony, meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment as the hours flew by.

Ease: Ease is related to your ability to take small, sweet steps toward goals. People who are successful have big dreams … and small goals. Jim found this out as he looked at his personal success:

Jim: “Before looking at success in this new way, I was comparing myself to every big home-builder in the area. Even during this economic downturn, they were still able to employ hundreds of guys to help them build smaller townhomes.

“But then I really looked at what I am accomplishing. I am able to contribute to our family income with these handyman jobs. In fact, I’m charging more per hour than I did while working for the home developer! I’m discovering that it really is okay to manage my expectations. Word is starting to spread that I’m good at what I do. And my wife’s job as an elementary school teacher is still secure. It seems like we’re even closer as a team.”

Grace: Grace is intimately related to our ability to be grateful. The definition of grace is that it is an unearned blessing. We can only see an unearned blessing if we’re willing to look for it. And that’s where gratitude comes in. I suggested to Jim that he keep a notebook by his bed, and every night write down three things for which he was grateful that day. Here is an excerpt from his diary:

Jim: “We decided today that we weren’t taking the kids out of town for a vacation this year. Instead, we’re going to movie matinees. We’re going to picnic in that park near the lake we all love. I’ll finally teach the kids to play paddleball. And my wife suggested we spend a day at the science museum that just opened in our city. Just thinking about all this makes me happy. And relieved!”

For Susan, the moment of grace was a bit different:

Susan: “I got a phone call from someone I went to high school with. Sandy and I hadn’t spoken in 20 years, since I’d left my hometown. She saw my advertisement in the neighborhood paper, and called to ask me to give a price quote for her daughter’s wedding invitations. Here’s the weird thing: due to last name changes, neither of us knew we were talking to an old friend! I don’t know how we got started talking about how we moved from hometowns, but then it dawned on us. We both started crying. Well, I guess you know what my moment of grace was!

“Needless to say, those are going to be the best invitations ever! She absolutely insisted on paying, so I gave her a big discount as a wedding gift for her daughter. And my husband and I went to the wedding! This never would have happened if I didn’t have this wonderful business!”

So in closing: Might it be all right for you to look at this definition of success? Because, at the end of the day, what are we really going to remember: a big paycheck or a hefty heaping of clarity, focus, ease and grace on our plate? Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we shouldn’t earn money or gain notoriety. But what will we really remember as we gaze back upon our life’s path? I suggest that success—true success—is made up of those moments that warm our heart and nurture our spirits and the spirits of others. And it just might raise our collective “happiness profile” by a few points.

Maria Nemeth is a speaker, psychologist, coach and author. Her works include The Energy of Money DVD and Mastering Life's Energies. For more, visit and