Why our perception of success makes us feel like failures

All that is required to have a successful life is to be exactly who you are and spend your life doing what you love to do.

One time, at a family gathering, my sister-in-law was talking about two of my younger cousins, both under 20 and both with very different lifestyles. One had recently gotten married and had a young baby. One was just finishing high school and was headed off to university in the fall. One had a very strict religious upbringing and the other had a strict academic upbringing. My sister-in-law noted these differences and stated that it would be interesting to see who would be more successful in the future.

I remember feeling very offended at the thought of this, comparing one cousin to the other based on the level of success they might experience in their lives. Who were we to gauge the success of another person? How does one even measure how successful another person is? Is this based on how much money the person earns, or on how happy they appear to be in their life? Is this based on how impressive their job title sounds or on how long they stay with their spouse? What is success and how is it measured?

Merriam-Webster defines success as the following:

  • the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame

  • the correct or desired result of an attempt

  • someone or something that is successful : a person or thing that succeeds


Even the sub-definitions of the word success can mean dramatically different things. Therefore, when talking about how successful a person is, it is necessary to clearly define how you personally measure success.

If your personal definition of success is based on the first definition: ‘the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame’, that means you only consider another person to be successful if they have a high-paying job, an impressive title, or significant popularity. Perhaps you see rich people as being the end goal. Maybe you are impressed by a person with a Dr. or Prof. in front of their name. Maybe you aspire to be like the people you see on Instagram with over 1 million followers.

But let’s break this down. Wealth, respect and fame.


Wealth doesn’t always come from hard work, and hard work doesn’t always result in wealth. If it did, then the housekeepers at a hotel would make more money than the general manager and kindergarten teachers would be vacationing in the south of France instead of working second jobs on the weekends in order to make ends meet. Some people are born into money and some people are able to build their own fortunes. However, I would never call a volunteer firefighter unsuccessful simply because he doesn’t earn millions of dollars. On the other hand, a con man who tricks unwitting grandmothers out of their retirement savings may earn big, but at what cost?

Does the accumulation of wealth supersede living a moral and fulfilling life?




This brings us to the second point, respect. This is something the volunteer fireman would have and the con man wouldn’t. But for most other professions, hobbies, or lifestyles this is a purely subjective category. What one person believes to be a respectful position might be considered unworthy to someone else.

What makes a profession respectable? Is it the title? Is that why garbage men are now called ‘sanitation engineers’? The title of your position doesn’t change what it is you actually do, so why should it matter? The only time you need to use it is when you are describing what you do to other people. Is it all about impressing others?

People are usually impressed if someone says they have a degree from Cambridge or Harvard, simply because of the reputations of the schools. People react differently when you talk about your new boyfriend, the doctor, than they do when you introduce your new boyfriend, the pizza delivery man.

Is it more important to have an impressive sounding job title than to have a career that you enjoy?

Image: Aaron Murphy – freeimages.com


With the line between fame and infamy so thin these days, it seems as if the only important aspect is having your name known. Whether you are famous for doing something good like Mother Teresa or for no reason at all, like that reprehensible American family of fame-whores whose name I will not mention, it appears that the public does not care. In fact, I’m certain that the majority of the population could not tell you who Mother Teresa was or what she actually did. They can, however, name all of Brangelina’s children and tell you which celebrities are currently fighting with each other.

What is it then that makes fame so desirable? Is it the idea that people know who you are? From what I can see, being followed by paparazzi and having your name dragged through the mud in tabloids doesn’t seem very enticing. Perhaps part of it is about the money that can be earned by advertising products via Instagram or YouTube. However, another aspect is simply the desire to be loved. The external gratification of having 1000 followers cannot be ignored. It feels good to think people like you.

But does having people know your name mean that you are successful?



So far, this definition of success has been based on how much money you earn, how impressed other people are by you and how popular or famous you are. If you have a lot of money, it means you are rich, but it does not necessarily mean that you did anything worthwhile — or anything all — to obtain it. Therefore, simply having a lot of money does not equal success. Aside from the money, the entire concept of success based on these attributes is completely intangible. Respect and fame are completely dependent upon other people’s perceptions of what you are, based on how you present yourself to the world.

The problem is, the society we live in has indoctrinated us into believing that wealth, respect and fame are synonymous with success. While writing this, I performed a google image search for ‘successful person’ and nearly all of the images were men and women wearing business suits. Unfortunately, the garbage men, volunteer firefighters and kindergarten teachers were not to be seen.


The second definition of success, ‘the correct or desired result of an attempt,’ is much less reliant upon what other people think of you. Rather, this definition is based on what goals you have created for yourself and whether or not you have achieved what you set out to. What other people think about these goals is absolutely irrelevant as this success is completely free of interpretation or subjectivity. This success does not depend on how much money or fame or respect you have. It doesn’t require you to make yourself sound better in order to gain attention or appreciation. It does not force you to choose wealth over your own dreams or humanity and it does not encourage you to change yourself in order to impress someone else.

Therefore, if we teach ourselves to ignore the outside perceptions of the choices we make in our lives, we will have a greater chance at finding our own personal success. All that is required to have a successful life is to be exactly who you are and spend your life doing what you love to do.






2 thoughts on “Why our perception of success makes us feel like failures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s