I feel this topic is pretty close to my heart. The reason for that is that discussions around this topic come up way too often in my life and I've spent enough time(years) trying to codify this in a way that is understandable for me based on my past experiences and observations. Codifying this also means that the next time I have this discussion with anyone, I know exactly how I think about this and am able to put my thoughts in a clearer way. So here it goes...
If you are from India (could be true about other places/cultures but I can't say for sure), chances are that you've had atleast one encounter with your friends or family where the discussion involves questions like "What is it that you want to do ?", "How much does your company pay you ?", "When are you getting a promotion ?", "Can you go to a better company to earn more ?", "Look, that guy is earning this amount, why cant you get it ?", "You should try to grow and be successful. How do you think you'll do that ?", "You studied from this X college, you should atleast go to this Y company. Why don't you try that ?", "You should try to get to this X college because then you'll be successful", "You should do this X degree because that will bring you close to success"
There is no end to this list and this list differs from what background you come from.
Now why these questions are asked or why these situations happen is a separate topic that I won't touch in this post. What I will touch though is how I think about the answers to these questions. A common theme of such situations is that they revolve around one topic in general, i.e. "Being successful".
We might like to be in a better place in life, like to be in a better home, like to travel to a lot of places, like to do X and Y and Z and this list is endless. But we try to proxy all of these things by using just one word, i.e Success.
To answer these questions in a better way, I decided to actually go a bit deeper in this topic and understand what success actually means. Thinking about it for some time, I came to a point where I thought maybe I should start with the dictionary. Success is infact just a word, and dictionaries define what the Society(The Beast) has accepted as the meaning of a word, not really to be opinionated about it, but more to create a way to express a certain situation.
So assuming(I'll come back to this assumption later) that dictionaries are not opinionated, I searched for the meaning of the word "Success". And how the dictionary defines it goes like this:
"Success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose."
Oh, wait. All this time, the way people use the word success is quite different from what the lexicographers(people who compile dictionaries) thought it meant. If you just read that definition, you'll understand that it never said that you have to go to this specific college, or work for this specific company, or create a company, or earn an arbitrary amount of money to be successful. What it really says is that there is an aim or a goal that you want to achieve and if you achieve it, you are successful in that one particular event. Thats it.
Often people also confuse being successful to being happy. Two very different things which might be related, but certainly are not the same. It is totally possible, and historically proven that a successful person can be unhappy.
As of writing this post, I am 26 and have talked to enough people and debated with them my definition of success. At this point, being successful (in terms of what most people think being successful is) takes a lower priority in my life as compared to a lot of other things.
For me, success is nothing but a status of a task that I tried to do. If I finish it as intended, I was successful. If I didn't finish it as intended, I wasn't successful. Thats it. It does not define whether I was happy about it or sad, whether it was the right thing to do, whether other people should do it or not.
Success is a very personal metric that has to be tracked by you and not others. The definition changes as soon as your goals change. Others might have different goals that they consider are important to them, which does not mean that not achieving those goals makes you unsuccessful. You might have some other goals that you want to achieve, you definitely have gone through situations which are unique to your life, which shape you in a way that defines what these goals that you want to achieve are.
If I don't get to live in a beach villa and I wanted to, sure I was unsuccessful in that endeavour. It does not really define whether I should be happy or sad about it. It just means whether it was done or not, a mere status of a task. If being in a beach facing villa was super important to me and I looked at that goal for most of my life, not achieving it will make me sad. But it does not mean that not having such a place by someone else makes that person unsuccessful. Chances are that the person doesn't have that villa on a higher priority in their life.
I mentioned that I looked up the word in the dictionary. I also mentioned that I am assuming that the dictionary compilers were not opinionated. So should I believe what is written in the dictionary ? Maybe the person who wrote the dictionary was biased about the idea and defined it in a way that seemed right to that person. To find an answer, I searched a bit more. Here's what I found:
The Oxford English Dictionary(OED) was one of the first crowdsourced projects, way before the term crowdsourcing was coined(sometime in 21st century). One of the key lexicographers and the also the Chief Editor of OED was Professor James Murray who asked for volunteers to submit words and meanings and started compiling them in a large list that finally became the Oxford Dictionary. When he dug deeper into the submissions, he realised that almost 10000 words were submitted by just one person, Dr. W. C. Minor. The committee insisted on honouring him. What came to light was that Minor was an American Civil War veteran, who was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. The Surgeon of Crowthorne is a book written on this account.
Regardless of what the details of the story are, it is important to note that questioning a bit more about what appears to be common knowledge and a widely accepted truth can reveal facts which almost feel incomprehensible. The word success has been defined in a certain way today, and it will change as the society starts to use it in different ways.
Today, the word questions you about your goals, and that is the only important part. I have defined my version of success based on what my goals at this point are, and it is a moving target which will change as and when my goals change.
And I encourage you to do the same. Figure out what your goals are and define what this word means to you.