How do you measure success?

Success. It can be as broad as a banquet table or as small as a midnight snack. The official definition of success is: The state or condition of meeting a defined range of expectations. It may be viewed as the opposite of failure.

How do you define success? Field the question to 100 people and it will yield 100 different responses. Some people focus on the financial aspect of success while others gravitate toward a more spiritual slant, but are they mutually exclusive?

 As I recently pondered my personal definition of success, I developed a curiosity about how others measure success and queried those within my circle of friends and family – spanning the ages from 15 to 75.

Throughout my “unofficial” research, I found, not surprisingly, that an individual’s relationship with success is often linked to age, life experiences, and sometimes a conflated lens from which they view themselves and their place in the world. Each response offered me perspective. Here are but a few of the generous responses I received:

My grandson Liam, age 15, offered his thoughts: “Success is knowing that you will one day be happy knowing what you went through to get it.” 

Kourtney (a former student of mine and now a 28-year-old Delta Airline flight attendant) shared, “I used to think it (success) equated to how much money you make, i.e., if you make at least six figures, then you’re successful. Now I think success looks like completing a “big” goal 100% to your satisfaction and also that you’re happy with yourself, your accomplishment, and your life.”

Author/Speaker Haley Scott DeMaria (a 1995 Notre Dame grad) gave me this thoughtful response: “I think success is cumulative. Everyday doesn’t have to be a successful one (although it’s good to strive for that). But if I look at the scope of my life, I would deem it successful if I have productive, kind children, and have made a positive difference in others’ lives.” 

Actor John Mainieri (age 69) who hails from NYC replied in rapid fire fashion: “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out. Success is never accidental.”

Retired science and math teacher Jill Lindley ascertained, “I feel that success now is much different than when I was 20, 30, or 40. Now, I feel that my purpose is getting closer to heaven every day by listening, helping others, etc. If I can say today that I’m closer today than I was yesterday, that is success to me.”

Said 75-year-old Robert Indian, retired cancer epidemiologist: “That person is a success that has the love of family and friends, the admiration of his or her communities, the respect of his or her enemies, and the courage to turn adversity into opportunities for growth.”

 It seems success, like wealth, cannot always be measured in the weight of gold coins. In his book, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two, author and co-founder of the Boston Beer Company (producers of Samuel Adams Beer) Jim Koch shared the story of a conversation that took place at a gala event he attended. The gentleman to his left, a bit of a boisterous boaster, unapologetically shared that he was so successful that he now possessed a couple of Ferraris, a yacht, a private plane, and a mansion in the Hamptons. After his self-indulgent monologue, he turned to Jim and asked, “What do you have?” 

Jim responded humbly, “I have something that you’ll never have.” 

“What could that possibly be?” the man puzzled.


Certainly, there is a component of financial stability when it comes to success. It’s nice to be able to brew a lovely cup of coffee without feeling like you are breaking the bank, but it’s even nicer to be able to brew that coffee and share it with a friend or a loved one. Enter character, integrity, and generosity. Perhaps without those characteristics, success is like a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips.

In my search to review what scholars and poets have expressed about the subject of success, I unearthed the knowledge that the poem, “What Is Success,” revealed. It is a piece I’ve always attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson but it was actually written by Bessie Anderson Stanley in 1904 at the age of 25. Her poem in its original text reads as follows:


He has achieved success

Who has lived well,

Laughed often, and loved much;

Who has enjoyed the trust of

Pure women,

The respect of intelligent men and

The love of little children;

Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

Who has left the world better than he found it

Whether by an improved poppy,

A perfect poem or a rescued soul;

Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s


Or failed to express it;

Who has always looked for the best in others


Given the best he had;

Whose life was an inspiration;

Whose memory a benediction.

In a correspondence on, dated Friday, August 31, 2001, Bethanne Larson (Bessie’s great-granddaughter and namesake) states, “‘Success’ was written as the winning entry in a contest run by Brown Book Magazine in 1904. Bessie won a cash prize of $250, which paid off the mortgage on the house, among other things. It was included in Bartlett’s Book of Quotations for decades, and if you can find an old edition from the 1930s or 40s, it should be there. They dropped it, I think in the 60s but I don’t know why.”

“The family isn’t sure how the poem got mangled and attributed to Emerson, but it was further confused by Ann Landers and her sister Abby. Ann Landers used to (mis)quote it all the time and cite Emerson as the source. My great-uncle Art, a retired federal judge who died last March, and she had a decade-long correspondence as he argued for a public correction. She finally conceded, and in her book, ‘The Ann Landers Encyclopedia,’ prints the whole story.

“I think it’s a beautiful poem, too. From what I’ve been told about her, it delineates her character perfectly. She lived what she wrote. And in these days, with our obsession for the material going full throttle, it’s good to be reminded that true success is not measured in portfolios, stock options, or bank balances.”

After sitting with the subject of success and taking stock of my personal definition of it, I’ve determined that success and the ability to garner it for oneself encompasses non-negotiable effort, grit, and defining values and living according to them. Beyond that, I believe we are all called to love no matter who we are, what we become, what we do for a living, or what faith we profess. If we honor that call by the way in which we live, in the end we will leave the world a better place. That’s the definition of success I will strive to step into and wear like a pair of well-worn jeans.