What is Success?

By Scott Westerman

“There is only one success – to spend your life in your own way.” – Christopher Morley.

What is the mark of a successful person? Visit the self help section of any bookstore and you’ll see a wagon load of opinion on that topic. Here’s one example, from investment adviser Pinyo Bhulipongsanon.

Successful people:
Know what they want
Don’t just think, they act
Have an insatiable hunger for knowledge
Are curious and not afraid to experiment
Build their networks
Are passionate about what they do
Are persistent and patient

That’s a good start.

I would add that successful people:
Are good listeners
Fail often, but get back up and try again
Have a positive attitude about life
Love to teach others how to be successful
Pay it forward by contributing to causes that are important to them
Want to make the world a better place

Based on these definitions, some of those that our tabloid society may call successful don’t fill the bill.

I used to believe that being a success meant displaying the outward signs of affluence. Then I learned about people like Dave Packard (The Hewlett / Packard Dave Packard), who helped create silicon valley, generated billions of dollars of shareholder value, was loved by his employees and his neighbors, but lived simply and wanted his head stone to say “David Packard – Farmer”.

We read about the so-called successful people who move from marriage to marriage, who struggle as parents, and are so self focused that there is little room “between the I’s”.

And then we read about Ghandi and Mother Theresa who suffered greatly but consistently said things like, “The miracle is not that we do the work, but that we are happy to do it.”

As I become more “seasoned”, it seems to me that the true definition of success is:


If you reread our list of traits, above, you’ll see that every one probably applies to a happy person you know.

One of the happiest people I met this year was a porter at the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida. He wouldn’t make the Forbes list that Bill Gates is on. He told me that, at age 64, he’s making less than $20.00 per hour.

But as we rode the elevator from my high perch to the lobby, he exuded joy. He loves living in a place where he can see the ocean every day. He maintains his health by taking long walks. He loves to read. He travels when he feels like it (almost always by train.. he was once an Amtrak porter). He volunteers on Saturday mornings at the local homeless shelter. And he has a network of good friends across the country, “A buddy in every county,” he says. And he love his job.

“I reckon that I’m a happier man than about 90% of the people in the world,” he told me. “And if I can rub some of that off on a guest or two each day, it’s a good day.”

Denis Waitley, one of my philosophical mentors, says that it’s ok to put lots of points on the board, but at the end of the day, it isn’t the money that will make you truly happy.

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed,” he says. “Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.

So as you start to write your 2010 goals and objectives, think seriously about what makes YOU happy? What’s standing between you and that happiness right now? What steps will you take next year to bring more happiness into your life? And how can you live every minute with love, grace and gratitude?

Colleen and I were at the theater today and saw a preview for a movie called “The Babies” that traces the first year of life for four infants, born in four different parts of the world. As we watched, we looked at each other, smiling and remembering how our kids exhibited some of the same behaviors, way back when. And we thought of how grateful we were to have loved them so deeply, wanting each to find their own joy, wherever it might be. ( Want to have a good day today? Watch the Babies trailer, below. )

I’m sure we screwed our kids them up along the way. All parents do. But as we held hands in the dark, we popped our favorite family picture up on our iPhone and realized again how happy we are.

As we ponder how to live a happy life, it’s a good time to remember the words of Robert Fulghum, who wrote one of the greatest success manuals ever: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

“And it is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

Wishing you happiness in 2010!