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What does being successful mean?

The word ‘successful’ might just be one of the most challenging words to be defined. Why, you might ask? Doesn’t every word simply have a definition that states its core meaning and purpose?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word successful as follows: The achieving of the results wanted or hoped for. At first sight this must seem like a very straightforward, to the point definition, right? But once you take a more precise look at the meaning of the words you begin to understand why this word in particular is so hard to define.

The definition talks about achievements, results, wanting and hoping, all terms that are on their own completely relative and have a different meaning to everyone. What for one person, for example, may be a wonderful achievement or result, might be totally unimpressive to another. The same goes for wanting and hoping, if you ask a hundred different people what they want and hope for right now, chances are, you will receive a hundred different answers. Looking at the word ‘success’ from this angle made me realize that there is no blanket definition for it, it all depends on what you, as a person, define as success.

If the setting would have been, say the 1960’s, the keywords used to describe what being successful means would be very different from the ones used today. Back then being successful had barely any personal touch to it, it wasn’t yours to decide whether you were successful or not, it was decided for you. Do you have the right background? Financial and social status? Connections? Education and career path? Those were the criteria whereof other people, or to say it more generally, society, would decide whether or not you were successful.

This is but one example of the shift in personal importance and focus that has been happening for decades now. The focus is no longer pointed at what they think of me, the most important thing is now: what do I think of me?

So maybe a better question would be “what does being successful mean to you?” When I asked my friends, all of them around 20 years old, what being successful meant to them, I got a variety of very lovely answers. Here are some of my favourites:

“For me it’s when I feel happy about what I have accomplished and when I’m at peace with the world and myself.”

“When I can do things that make me feel happy and complete.”

“For me, success is doing what you love. Looking towards the future... I will definitely feel successful if I find myself every day doing or making something with passion and excitement.”

Notice the keywords they use; happy, at peace, doing what you love, accomplished, etc,.

Looking at the answers I received, two words in particular stand out: happy and I. When I am happy, I am successful, I am successful when I’m happy. Since every person has the freedom to decide what makes them happy, doesn’t that also mean that we can define our own success as well?

Looking at it from this angle can take the weight of the (judging) world directly off your shoulders. When you set your own criteria and your own definitions of success it becomes totally up to you whether you are or not. In other words, it gives you the freedom to live without the judgement of others, and isn’t that already quite a success on its own?

Nandi van Vliet

Nandi is a Dutchie, born and raised in The Hague. After finishing High School she decided to travel to see if she could find out which direction she really wants to go in in life. While staying in Cape Town and meeting people from all over the world, she discovered that traveling and connecting with people from all different kinds of cultures and backgrounds is her true passion, resulting in her now being a first year ICM student. She's a firm believer that you can never dream big enough for yourself and for others and hopes that in the years to come she can contribute to making the world a better place for everyone.


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