Catherine H. Tinsley
University professor

Catherine H. Tinsley

Associate professor at Georgetown University's business school and the executive director of the GU Women's Leadership Initiative.

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Success through the eyes of others

Q: How do you define success?

Recently, I posed the question of how to define success to two classes of evening students who had just begun studying for their Master's in Business Administration. I reasoned that since these people work full-time and then spend several evenings each week in my class (or another business school class). they must be pretty motivated to succeed. So what did success mean to them?

After spending about 20 minutes discussing it in small groups, they offered their definitions, which all turned out to be very logical --  if a bit bland.  Generally, their definitions coalesced around the idea of "achieving one's personal or professional goals." So, success can be seen as having one's life unfold in a way that one has tried to direct it.

Although rational enough, this definition is, of course, incomplete. Where, for example, is the role of luck? What about those who experience random good fortune and, say, discover penicillin or become the Beatles drummer because Pete Best opted out?  Are they not successful? Naturally, students agreed they were.

So then we wondered whether external recognition was part of success. At first, they all insisted it wasn't. I was suspicious of this reply, so I had students give me examples of people who were successful.  Their answers: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet (remember these are business students), Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Gilbert Arenas (and mostly male).  Strikingly, no one said "my cousin who fulfilled his dream by earning enough money as a painter" or "my sister who loves her gardening." Indeed, there was no mention of anyone who was not famous.

Economists define a notion of "revealed preferences" -- when people may not consciously think something is important but their behavior suggests otherwise. We may be seeing a "revealed attitude" toward success that conflates it with achieving external recognition.  Although we may not want to think of external recognition as an important component to defining success, I suspect many of us do --perhaps subconsciously -- believe this. We may wish we defined success as achievement of internally fulfilling goals -- that we spend our lives doing what we think is important. But in reality, we probably define success when our achievements bestow some positive external recognition.  

This dichotomy may explain a tension that exists between happiness and success. Many of us think success will bring happiness, and I am not so sure they are correlated. Just because lack of success is correlated with unhappiness, it doesn't mean success and happiness co-occur as often as we may believe.  But that is probably a topic for another class ...

By Catherine H. Tinsley  |  November 2, 2009; 1:46 PM ET  | Category:  Defining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Building significance | Next: Success on your own terms

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