How do you define success?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sean M. Finnan
  • 86th Operations Support Squadron
I read the book Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, a couple years ago. His thoughts on achievement vs. success particularly resonated with me.

When talking about our careers, we often ask each other, "What do you want to be?" or "What do you want to do?"  Although those are good questions, I believe the better question is, "How do you define success?"  Not how I define it, or your peers define it, or the Air Force system defines it, but how do YOU define success?  It can be a difficult question to answer.

According to Sinek, the key to answering that question is understanding the difference between achievement and success.  We often confuse the two or use them interchangeably.  But they are different and their difference matters.  "Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal.  It is something tangible, clearly defined and measurable," says Sinek.  It is WHAT we do. 

In the Air Force, achievement comes with getting promoted, winning awards, earning a degree, getting a job or position we want, or receiving a good report.  We all want achievement.  Achievement is the result of doing well.  However, it is different than success.  Success is difficult to measure.  It is not tangible, because it is a sense; it is a belief, an ideal, a set of values or principles.  It "is a feeling or a state of being," says Sinek.  Achievement is WHAT we do.  Success is WHY we do it.

Now don't be confused.  Our achievements are hugely important.  What we do matters.  Absolutely, be proud of what we do.  But, "success comes when we wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do," says Sinek.

"Those who never lose sight of WHY, no matter how little or how much they achieve, can inspire us.  Those with the ability to never lose sight of WHY and also achieve the milestones that keep everyone focused in the right direction are the great leaders." According to Sinek,  great leaders "are in pursuit of WHY, they hold themselves accountable to HOW they do it and WHAT they do serves as the tangible proof of what they believe."

I love this quote by Theodore Roosevelt, because I think it captures this concept very well.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

So, be in the arena, be the doer of deeds, know the triumph of high achievement.  Do WHAT you do well.  But even if you don't, even if you fail, you will have at least strived valiantly, dared greatly, and spent yourself in a worthy cause, because you will have believed in WHY you've done it.  So, I ask you again, how do you define success?