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Unpacking Success

How would you define success?

In North American society, people aged 8-60 generally associate success by measures like: accumulated wealth, a high-profile job, freedom to pursue hobbies, frequent and extensive travel, children with good academic and athletic achievement, broad public recognition (or fame) or high educational attainment.

Some individuals – especially those with extensive life experience – tend to consider success in more foundational or collective terms: physical and mental health, a productive career, contributions to the greater good.

Basically, there is no single right answer to defining success; it is a very individual value. Consider that Wambui may be judged by many as “successful” because she has millions of dollars in the bank. This has come at the expense of physical and psychological well-being due to prolonged, elevated work stress and a lack of meaningful social connection. In fact, despite the accumulated wealth, Wambui does not consider herself successful because she has discovered that her dominant value is quality time with friends, which she had sacrificed for her career.

Likewise, someone’s personal definition of success might not be viewed as success to others. Karim has, at age 25, finally attained his high school diploma and is able to apply on jobs that were not previously available to him and is therefore one step closer to financial independence. He can be especially proud of his accomplishment because he had dropped out of school at age 14 due to a difficult home life. Those who gained their diplomas at age 18 may view the surface of his success as insignificant if they do not consider his circumstances. 

Ultimately, personal success comes from aligning values, interests, skills and actions with our self-determined goals. As a variably and contextually defined concept, success often consists of many ‘non-visible’ elements that are easily overlooked. Consider the following diagram: 

The iceberg metaphor is useful for reminding us that however success is defined, there are often components of a person’s story that are not taken into account. Failure and setbacks are natural, expected parts of our life journey that can be easier to overcome when understood as common to everyone (while acknowledging that some people having more challenges and fewer supports than others).

At MatchWork, an important step toward achieving success is helping people first identify what success looks like for them. Aligning success with their values and what would truly bring them happiness may evolve over time as people reflect on their lives, skills, interests and values.


Self-Reflection: Defining your Success

  1. What does success look like for your life?
  2. Given that we have finite resources (i.e. time, energy, money), what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve that success? 


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