What is success?

It’s always interesting to compare the words success with it’s perceived opposite – failure:

Success: the accomplishment of an aim or purpose

Failure: lack of success

source: New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition

Those definitions make sense, right? Failure is the opposite of success – would you not agree? But is it always true?

polevault.jpgIf you think of success as a destination – a place to arrive too – I can see that not arriving at that destination could be thought of as a failure. Yet framing success and failure this way leaves no room for growing and learning. And it leaves even less room for trusting the process.

So how can we learn and grow if we don’t try things; have experiences? I’m not so sure we really can. I mean, I can read books, watch videos and attend seminars and playing tennis. I could become a virtual encyclopedia of playing tennis. But all that knowledge means very little when I hit my first forehand out of the playing area.

You see, I’m a huge proponent of the process. The process is all those steps you take when you move from idea to action. It’s the experience of putting what you know – and don’t know – into play and seeing what happens. It’s the place where real growth happens.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet, somehow, in our modern life, we’ve seem to be overridden with ideas of perfection and doing it right (or not doing it wrong). We can’t fail. And we look poorly at people who do. We don’t see someone gaining valuable experiences toward success. Rather we see someone who failed. Heck, we don’t even acknowledge the bold and scary move of putting your ideas into action. Instead, we cower behind our false sense of safety; looking out to sea from the comfort of our park bench.

For me, success is about being in the game. It’s about not giving up. It’s about continuing to move toward the next step in the process – even if that next step is in a completely different direction.

About failure, Ben Franklin Thomas Edison said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

About success, Booker T. Washington said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as the obstacles which he has overcome.”

And about the process, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

What do you say? What does success – and failure – mean to you?

Reader Interactions


  1. Jean Browman says

    FYI, it was Thomas Edison, not Ben Franklin, who said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

    Henry Ford said, “Failure is just an opportunity to try again more intelligently.”

  2. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    🙂 I’m not sure why, but somehow my message got sent before I finished. Another one of life’s great mysteries.

    Anyway, I tend not to use the terms success and failure. I think in terms of curiosity, exploration, developing skills, making a contribution and enjoying the process. It’s a liberating way of going through life.

  3. Mark Goodyear says

    I like what Tony said. Success is more about our intentions to try than our expectations of what will happen when we do.

  4. Tony D. Clark says

    For me it’s simple:

    If I want to do something, and do it, it’s a success — regardless of the outcome.

    If I want to do something, but don’t, it’s a failure.

  5. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    “Yet most of the world – and certain the great majority of Americans tend to think in terms of success/failure. I think it’s important to look at it that way, just without the restraints of good/bad.”

    Doesn’t the word failure have connotations of bad? More importantly, when you talk about success/failure it sounds like either/or. It strikes me as being a lot more effective to ask, “What part worked? What didn’t work so well? What shall I try next?”

  6. Dawud Miracle says

    I stand corrected. And I’m very familiar with the Ford quote, thanks for adding it.

    I think that’s a great way to look at it. Yet most of the world – and certain the great majority of Americans tend to think in terms of success/failure. I think it’s important to look at it that way, just without the restraints of good/bad.

    Great to see you back, thanks.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Do you ever feel bad from trying something and ‘failing,’ though?

    Yeah. I know plenty of people who painted a picture of success only to discover that when they reached their goal they really had failed. Failed because they forgot the journey. It’s all about the journey.

    Could you even imagine abandoning your kids to gain some business success?

  7. Mark says

    Good stuff, we live in a society which is fearful of failure. Failure is part of the growing process. I too love the process, the journey for that is where the real success lies.

  8. Tony D. Clark says

    I guess there was a time when I did.

    But being a successful entrepreneur without “failing” is like being a home run hitter, without having a lot of strike-outs.

    Never get caught lookin’!

  9. Dawud Miracle says

    It really is. Some of my greatest ‘perceived’ failures have lead to my most rewarding successes. That’s why I do my best to trust the journey. I try to remember Thoreau:

    If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

    Tony D.,
    Or thinking your can win at Wimbledon without hitting a few out from time to time.

  10. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    Even without the connotations, I think questions such as “What part of this worked? What did I learn from this? What would I do differently next time?” are much more powerful than asking “Was this project a success or a failure?” Getting curious and asking more specific questions gives you more useful information.

  11. Dawud Miracle says

    Not to me. Failure is part of the process – nothing more, nothing less. I do my best not to judge it as good or bad. It just is. And if you try enough things in life, you’re bound to have all types of experiences. So, I don’t see it as either/or because I don’t see it from a dichotomy. Do you?

  12. Jennifer says

    Success is following your passion and your dreams – regardless of what you family and friends say…

    Success is living a life filled with joy, love, and laughter…

    Success is truly choosing to be happy RIGHT NOW…

    If you live these things – money and abundance will be ever present in your life.

  13. Dawud Miracle says

    …and success is unfolding, expressing and living your truest essence.

    Perhaps. I would agree some of the time. And other times I think it can very helpful to not sugar-coat how you really feel about how something went. Sometimes a good, hard look in the mirror is what we need to find out success. So I’d say all definitions of success are right.

  14. Stuart Baker says

    Hi Dawud,

    I love the Emerson quote especially, that “all life is an experiment”.

    What a wonderful attitude. You can take various actions with gusto and full intention, and some will pan out better than others. The whole orientation of building one “success” and accomplishment upon another can get pretty empty and misguided. And it can feed major stress! Look at our buddy Dave Schoof at http://www.thedisquiet.com.

    Thanks. Real nice post.

    Stuart Baker

  15. Dawud Miracle says

    It really can’t be any other way. Think about when we’re kids. Everything is new. We’re constantly learning and experimenting with what it means to be people in bodies. I mean, how do we ever know that we don’t want to eat dirt unless we experiment with it. But an unfortunate thing happens as we age – we forget to continue experimenting. What would change in our lives if we didn’t forget?

    In some ways, that’s what Dave Schoof’s work is all about. I’m not talking about some mumbo-jumbo revisiting of our childhood. But rather remembering that even at 54 we need to experiment with our life. It’s the only way, I feel, we can truly find peace. If we’re not full of peace, beauty and love we need to keep experimenting with new experiences – and letting go of old ones – until we are….we need to keep learning.

  16. Stuart Baker says

    Yes, Dawud, I couldn’t agree with you more about how we often forget about play and honoring the true child within as we get older. It is so easy to fall into living patterns and roles instead of continuing an experimental life.


  17. Stuart Baker says

    Just like the Moody Blues said years ago,
    “Through the eyes of a child you must come out and see….”

    Yes, to live in childlike wonder over life. One of my best friends passed away a couple of years ago. He was an international planning consultant who lived in wonder right up until cancer took him at 79. And he absolutely charmed the heck out of everyone. Definitely one of my best memories of him is how many hours we spent laughing our butts off together and simply enjoying being together.

    Thanks, Dawud.


  18. Dawud Miracle says

    Not only honor the child within us, but live in the fresh state of learning that children have. Explore, experiment, try new thing and be willing to learn. That’s something we seem to loose more and more as age. When I watch my kids find something new – how they explore it is amazing. It’s quite literally like they’ve never seen it before – cause they haven’t. And while we’ve ‘seen’ a lot of things in our lives – the more as we age – how much do we really stop and explore what we see? I mean really explore it with a freshness and openness as though it’s totally new.

  19. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    “And other times I think it can very helpful to not sugar-coat how you really feel about how something went. Sometimes a good, hard look in the mirror is what we need to find out success.”

    I agree, being honest about our feelings, looking at them deeply and dealing with them is often an important part of the process. I’m just saying don’t let our feelings blur our view of reality. Separate the two. We need all the information we can get.

  20. LaurenMarie - Creative Curio says

    Someone commented to me yesterday how “successful” I am at such a young age. The thought that popped into my mind was that he was using his barometer of success to measure my level of success. Interesting.

    I have always thought that the definition of success is very personal and can greatly vary. I think the people who feel the most successful are the ones who know themselves best and are doing what they love (money != success). I have never thought about it in the way you presented here, Dawud. I like it! Thank you! I wrote about this very thing (wanting to be perfect and to know everything before beginning) in my first blog post. I came to realize there is too much to learn, I’ll never remember it all, and much of it probably won’t even apply to me!

    Jean’s attitude is so great, “What part of this worked? What did I learn from this? What would I do differently next time?” One of the keys to having this attitude is to be comfortable with yourself and have the ability to accept yourself. We can be so accepting, tolerant and understanding of others, but we are 100 times the critic of ourselves.

  21. Dawud Miracle says

    Ooh, the Moody Blues…great reference.

    Absolutely. Do you think that’s always possible?

    I think that’s the pitfall…letting our own definitions of success be influenced, or tainted, by other’s. And I agree that knowing yourself is the real key to success. It’s like a secret that few really know because they’re chasing fame and fortune. Yet look at famous people today – do they look any happier than you or I? I mean, really look. Not when they’re on the red carpet. Look behind their eyes and what do you see. Peace, contentment, joy? Or something less than that?

  22. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    “Do you think that’s always possible?” It’s a lot more possible than most people think. Some people find describing things in the third person helps. It puts some distance between you and the situation and makes it easier to see things more clearly. I frame it as a spiritual practice. It’s like meditation…no matter how an individual incident turns out, in the bigger picture there’s no way of losing.

  23. Jean Browman--StressToPower says

    Tony D. Clark has elaborated on his view in today’s post Nobody Is Going To Save You

    He says
    * A setback is one of those inevitabilities of life, when things don’t go according to plan.
    * A failure is when you give up, or don’t try, when you still want to reach your goal.

    He goes on to say how to deal with setbacks. I think that was well put.

  24. Dawud Miracle says

    Sorry Jean, I’m not asking if it’s always possible for you or even me. I’m asking for everyone else? So you think most people even have access to what motivates them below the surface?

    I love Tony’s blog. Thanks for the great link – which I made live.

  25. Jean Browman says

    My experience is that most people don’t have access to what’s below the surface, and they’re often afraid to try looking. For all I know, they may be right…it may not be for them.

    “Intrapersonal” is one of Howard Gardner’s 7 types of intelligence. After a long time of trying to teach people to get more in tune with themselves, I’ve decided that there might be something innate going on, but that it’s also societal. I remember reading as an adolescent that introspection was unhealthy…we should always be oriented to the external world. Introspection meant you were neurotic and too wrapped up in yourself. That didn’t make sense to me. If you’re curious instead of judgmental, it gives you the ability to integrate your life…to align your actions with your values. I cured myself of a phobia about dentists when I was 16 years old by using self-hypnosis. From then on I’ve never felt stuck. If my life wasn’t working I knew I had the power to change things.

    One of the traits I list for stress-hardy people (http://stresstopower.com/Stress%20Hardiness.html) is:

    “They take responsibility for their mental programming, their emotions, and their actions. If they have ineffective ways of thinking and behaving, they evaluate them and make appropriate changes.”

    Most people wouldn’t agree to that, I’m sure. But as we’ve said many times, we can’t resonate with everyone. I, for one, am not willing to settle for less.

    Today’s post at my StressToPower blog (http://stresstopower.com/blog/2007/08/12/mourning-our-losses/) is about mourning our losses, which ties in with this conversation, I think. Tomorrow’s post at Cheerful Monk (cheerfulmonk.com) will be entitled “It’s a Magical World.” It will touch on the subject of reconnecting with childlike wonder, of seeing the world with fresh eyes.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

  26. Aparelho Ortodontico says

    In my thoughs Success refers to a people who have all the confort he needs inside its house, a time to spend to its family and part-time job that fills the money requirements for living.


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