Redefining Success


"Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it." - Maya Angelou

Love and creativity are renewable resources. Other resources are more scarce, and fear or ignorance create systems of injustice and devastation. These can make us feel alone, angry, bewildered, or like failures. There is enough success to go around, just not the sort of success we may have been taught to value. In redefining success, we begin to redefine our relationship to the overculture, to sustainability - our new watchword - and to the ideas of scarcity and abundance.

An internal feeling of scarcity and panic constricts the flow of life and limits our relationship to the processes of the cosmos. Yes, there is external scarcity. Yes, some resources are finite. Yes, sometimes we feel so beaten down or overwhelmed that even access to creativity and love feel limited. I feel compassion for this. I also know we have to find a way, somehow, to try. If those of us who live in relative privilege act as though love and creativity are scarce, how much more so does a person living in grinding poverty, or a war zone, some other place where systems of fear and ignorance hold sway? Fear and ignorance are everywhere. They do not have to define how we live or who we are. They certainly do not have to define what we place value upon.

I value your desire for love, beauty, engagement, and success. Here’s one working definition of that last: Success is the sense that one contributes to the world and in turn, receives love and satisfaction. Nice equation, isn’t it? It’s only one definition, but it works for me for now. Some of you fighting against it, I know. You say, “I work so hard and don’t feel love!” Can you breathe with me? Can you find the ways that fear and a sense of love as a scarce resource have closed you down? Are you harboring anger and resentment? The more we expand, open, and loosen our grip on these feelings, the less control they will take of the flow of love. With the flow of love, the simplest things can make us feel as though we are rich: Sunlight on leaves. Clean water. Kindness.

Some of my friends struggle hard, scarcity dogging at their heels, with a constant sense of messages shouting in their eyes and ears, “Just do it! There is nothing you can’t do! Everything is possible if you just try hard enough! What are you waiting for? The time is now! Here are my five simple steps to success!” On and on. Partial truths. Sometimes inspiration. Sometimes traps of ego fighting against the other voice that says, “But what if there really isn’t enough to go around?” And that voice is partially true as well. There isn’t enough money, or gold, or oil, or food, or clean water, at least not at the rates we are using them, not with our current relationship to the earth and each other. But we have the ability to change this around: not to increase the resources themselves, but to shift our relationship to them in such a way that we can share better. So here we are, back to a redefinition of success, and a return to our stores of creativity and love.

What does your soul desire? Where do you feel constricted? How can changing your definition of success help bring you ease? What changes in the values of the overculture might become possible if you believed in yourself enough to follow your desire to fruition? A sense of scarcity and constriction inside does not help to alleviate any real patterns of scarcity outside. Take a breath. Relax. Expand. Regroup around your center, and listen to your soul.

I would love it if we all take some time today to think on this and brainstorm together: What is your definition of success? And how can I better open up to love and creativity, setting free the flow, creating a world I feel proud to live in, and sharing it with those whom I am proud to call my friends?

I look forward to reading your comments.

As an aside: when looking for a picture to illustrate this, when I typed "success" into the search, all I got back were pictures of money, tall business district buildings and the occasional suburban house. Mostly it was money, money, and more money. Then I typed in "joy" and found some pictures that looked more like success to me, including the one I used here. It's a tough thing, to shift the overculture, but we have the creativity to make it happen.

(Thanks to Danielle LaPorte for the Angelou quote, and to Scott Liddell for the pic.)

29 Responses to “Redefining Success”

  1. Aine

    In my journal a couple weeks ago I was trying to do exactly this- define success for myself and some of the things I came up with were:

    – To me success means being able to take a vacation at least once a year. And by vacation I don’t mean anything fancy, just a chance to get away from my usual surroundings and take a break from work. I have worked retail on and off for most of my adult life and vacations are a rare commodity in that environment.

    – Success means having enough resources (physical and emotional energy, financial resources, etc.) to be able to make life decisions (whether I own a car, what kind of food I put in my body, where I live) based primarily on my values rather than availability of resources.

    – Success means feeling myself to be in alignment with the universe and doing that (those) special thing(s) that I’m here to do.

    Money is hypothetically involved but I’m much more interested in meeting physical needs and concrete desires (food, healthy living situation, access to art supplies, opportunities to connect and share love) than I’m hung up on any particular /how/.

  2. kimberely

    I’ve got a lot to say about all this, it will have to wait for the moment. Quick thoughts on the fly: I’m so glad that this discussion is making it onto the collective table of consciousness.
    Success does indeed need to be redefined, to move beyond the association only with money + power, which castrates true, meaningful success.(We have somehow confused having ‘enough’ with ‘success/MORE’).
    In turn, this will effect how we use our success with money + power in the future: by adding love, compassion, trust, mindfulness, humility. Suddenly, ‘enough’ becomes sustainable, not devouring. As it should be!
    kimberely @unshakablesoul

  3. Shira

    Doing my work, doing it well, and taking joy (and pride) in it.

  4. Ellie Di

    I married a man whose definition of success fits the “old” one, while I’ve always been taught that success fits your definition of love and being present in the world. It makes for interesting discussions. But lately, it’s been harder and harder to feel like I’m able to succeed in my present-ness when I’m being bound by financial problems. (Yes, I understand that white, lower middle-class people have no room to bitch. But there we have it.) I want to give more and experience more, yet I can’t seem to loosen and step back from the problem of money. How do we confront and shift that problem?

  5. Jo

    Success to me is living a joyful life. It sounds simple but as you so eloquently point out, internal voices of worthlessness and scarcity keep tripping me up. It feels like the work of my soul to keep unfolding and opening to connection, love and joy – that’s where the healing happens within and without.

  6. Christopher Bartlett

    Thorn, this brings up a lot of very complex stuff for me. I love the idea of what you are saying. It is easier to choose to divorce oneself from the over-culture’s definition of success when you have no one depending on you for food, shelter, education and the odd nice thing. As a parent of one adult but dependent child with a child of her own and three dependent minor children, this divorce is a lot harder.

    There are days when I do not feel I can do it alone and I feel that I get very little support in my constant struggle to align myself with the notions of success you talk about, with which I am in agreement. But next month, I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to get through financially; we’ve been hit with unplanned medical expenses that have toppled us from the hard-won stability I’ve managed to create over the last year. In the shadow of this uncertainty, just breathing through is difficult, let alone seeking to play a part in overturning common wisdom and culturally promoted values even by simply refusing to align myself with them.

    I know you to be a person of deep compassion. I know myself to be dedicated to the ongoing work of knowing and honoring the Flower above me. Many of us are trying to live our work in a culture that does not honor the values we want to align ourselves with. Many of us feel alone in these pursuits as potential allies are also under the same pressures, or separated from us by artificial divisions of politics, class, race, gender, sex and orientation. We need an alter-culture to give us support and choices when seeking to change our positions in the over-culture. I know you to be a voice speaking a similar truth and honor you for that. I challenge all your readers then to think and pray and feel for ways that we can create this alternative, that will allow us to support one another more effectively so that the terrible isolation becomes a thing of the past.

    Forgive my not-quite-rant, you have touched me deeply with this piece.

  7. Pitch313

    Success is when I want to wash the dishes after cooking. And when my cats are purring. And when I am riding my mountain bike along a trail. And when making love works. And when the guardians and deities have their ways through me.

  8. Thorn

    I feel so grateful for these varied definitions of success.

    Ellie and Christopher, it can be such a struggle to keep engaging with our values when times are difficult and others don’t support us. My prayer (which I try to back up with action) is that we keep finding ways, however small, to measure our true successes. What are some things you can claim as success today? Claiming our successes – like Pitch, Aine, Shira,and Jo have done, or like Kimb is pointing to – helps to open up more energy in our lives, in our minds, in our emotions, unknotting the energy that leaves us feeling like “I can’t”.

    And yes, the overculture needs serious change right now. Where do we each begin, and then how do we join together? When we start making our own definitions, instead of relying on the twisted definitions handed to us by Madison Avenue, television etc, we call back life power and move one more step toward liberation. In the midst of this work, it also doesn’t hurt to ask each other for help.

  9. Possumina

    Success is meaningless unless you are truly doing what you love, giving and receiving love through your work in one unending cycle.

    Having said that, I also know the pain and struggle of doing work you love, but being barely able to keep your head above water financially, or of being unable to sustain yourself by doing what you love. During those years of struggle, I tried to remember that the overculture creates a system in which only a few privileged people achieve what it defines as “success.” The fact that I was surviving at all, with food to eat, a roof over my head and clothes to keep me warm, indicated that I was a survivor, and thus successful at what I did.

    To me, success also means some kind of recognition for my work, whether that comes from the people whom I serve, or from some other source. I have a deep need to feel “seen” and acknowledged. It doesn’t need to come with monetary rewards, but hearing “Well done” is a powerful message of success for me. I try to remember that and pay it forward as often as I can; I think we all need to hear that to feel successful in the world.

  10. Ocean Songs

    My idea about success has changed, thankfully. For many years, I fell into the trap of judging my worth by how much money I (didn’t) make, what kind of job I had, having a house with 2.2 kids and a dog named Fido along with 2 cars in the drive way…one of them had to be SUV.

    Now I see that idea about success was just the symptom of living in a materialistic and self-serving society. Truly success is based in virtues like compassion, kindness, charity, tolerance, acceptance.

    I am on disability for several years now and I felt like I had failed at life because of it. Not anymore. I consider it a good day if I show love, caring and kindness. If I can be creative enough to make a poem about the Divine or peace or the way it feels to listen to birds just before dawn…then that adds to the quality of my day also.

  11. kimberely

    I love this rich (pun intended0 imagery, Thorn — shamanically speaking from a cultural perspective: we need to retrieve the ‘lost’ fragments of success and sing them home, shifting the paradigm. I agree, fervently and with focus: how do we join together and create this? What does this look like in action?


  12. Ottavina

    My definition of success is being able to live comfortably as me, out loud, sharing the gifts that I have, enjoying it and helping others along the way. Currently working on making this reality…

  13. Tonja Harvey

    What I “hear” you saying is that in order for humans to live in harmony with the earth, and to conserve natural resources, we must reject the Overculture’s definition of success and create our own.
    The Overculture’s definition being: makes tons of money, live in the largest home you can find, drive the nicest cars and otherwise fill your life and home with expensive things. I reject that too!
    What I “hear” other people saying is that they are getting the re-definition of success mixed up with the nuts & bolts of how to achieve what they really want out of life.
    Success is the what, but it isn’t the entirety of the equation. The “what” merely points you toward the correct aisle in the hardware store. Once you define what success means to you: engaging work, financial security/independence, loving family, world domination, etc. Then you can begin to ask yourself if your behaviors and attitudes are in alignment with your new definition.

  14. Erin

    “when making love works” sweet succulence, that made my collar bone ache in resonance.

    a lot of my sense of success is connected to things i’ve worked hard for but ultimately work out by some magical alchemy i’m not entirely in control of – success and gratitude are really linked for me.

    like still being married – so much growth and learning and maturing and strengthening of my best parts and loving of my undersides – but i’m achingly aware that it’s as much a gift as a product of any effort – i’ve simultaneously earned it as been blessed with it.

    success is also the feeling of handling something that i haven’t handled well in the past in a new way that I am proud of that bolsters my sense of liking how i am in this world.

    it’s also the transition from finding opportunities to serve paralyzingly overwhelming, triggering all kinds of defences that turn my natural gifts in on themselves and growing attributes in myself – capacities – that allow me to respond to those opportunities and put my gifts to stronger and stronger use. Success feels like handling occasions that used to get desperately wasted.

    success is feeling sturdier with my moments of choice.

  15. Leanne

    Thorn, this conversation is amazingly broad & deep; thank you!
    Today I am observing in myself the exhaustion that comes from trying to do too much this week/month. This constricts the energy I have, as I try to hold back and conserve, and feed my flagging reserves. It’s the perfect time to ask for help, and I’m getting better at this.
    This evening we’ll host a ritual, and my main role will be to direct willing helpers to do what needs to be done. This creates community, the opportunity to work together towards a common goal. As I see tasks being accomplished, my trust increases, and I relax into an open state. Others have the opportunity to do, and their confidence increases, allowing them to step into their own power, and become more open.
    This is only one way to come into community, in an alternative to the overculture’s offerings of community. It benefits us to be open, vulnerable and trust that this does not mean that the interaction will not be an exchange.

  16. Thorn

    Tonja, that is very nicely put – and feels helpful. What you outline is a big part of it (and yes to all who are pointing out how exhausting this all can feel!). The other part is that in redefining success for ourselves, we begin to change the overculture to a more sustainable model.

    Erin, “it’s also the transition from finding opportunities to serve paralyzingly overwhelming, triggering all kinds of defences that turn my natural gifts in on themselves and growing attributes in myself – capacities – that allow me to respond to those opportunities” This feels very important, and is part of what I was trying to point out (I think) with mentioning the sense of scarcity and constriction and how that blocks the flow of life, desire, and sex – we do so often feel overwhelmed, which also causes shut down.

    Leanne, your vision feels right on as one way for us to support each other in this process.

    (and note to self: Install “rich debate” or “disqus” next week, so comments can thread!)

  17. Vermillion

    I love how your posts are always so timely for me Thorn.

    Success for me I guess is every moment where I don’t want to kill myself. I don’t say that lightly, I’ve suffered from depressing going on 22 years now and every time I think I have it mostly under control it comes raring up again. I’m working on not measuring my success by the actions/definitions of others (I still live with my mother for instance, a not ideal situation at all but my depression makes it hard to be on my own) but every breath I consciously take as one that says “I want to be here” is a success for me. At some point I’d like to reconcile this into something that will affect our earth (I will not be so attached to material things, I will look into alternate uses of xyz) but it’s just hard when you’re constantly bombarded by our culture. There definitely needs to be a shift :/

  18. Jesi

    Last week I knit a pair of socks for the first time – without a pattern. I felt on top of the world! Others looked at me and said, “Why bother? Can’t you just buy some socks?” I could, but that’s not the point. In other’s eyes, what I did was a waste of time, but to me, it was a big accomplishment. With my knowledge and intelligence, I took a pile of string and a couple of sticks and made a functional pair of warm wool socks. I judged the level of success in my own eyes, regardless of other’s opinion.
    That to me is true success, to be able to find and achieve your own definition of attainment of goals regardless of the “Ideal” presented in society. Such has been said here in the comments, the over-culture pushes this ideal of success, but what do you have to do to attain it? Lie, cheat, steal? What quantifies that as success?

    Something I also think is a hindrance to success is your own inner critic. I could look at those socks and say, “Damn! I made a mistake there… and there… and there!” and feel that my success isn’t valid, since I’m so concerned about the fumbles along the way, or some sort of idealized perfection. We could say that about any success – My manuscript isn’t good enough, my job isn’t good enough, my grades aren’t good enough – good enough for who? For yourself? Family? Society? I realized with a lot of heartache that success needs to be something you have to make and define for yourself, and it is not perfection, as I thought it was for so many years.

  19. Shannon Moore

    It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I define success as freedom.
    Freedom to choose how much one wants to work, how much stuff one wants to have, how much one chooses to hop around like a little girl on a sunny hill.
    I think your comments on the picture at the end nailed it. Success isn’t working yourself to death And I suspect that most of us don’t.
    I am reminded of a movie called “Affluenza” There was a couple that lived in an enormous mcmansion, had a four car garage, both parents worked 50 hours a week and never saw their kids.
    Anyway, the short version is they decided to live with less. They moved to a cheaper area, mom quit her job, Dad cut back to 40 hours a week (because he liked his job) sold a few cars and lived cheaper, simpler and spent way more time watching their kids grow up.

    Success is the product of a state of mind that compels one to find ways to achieve the freedom to pursue ones true will. Finding out what that is, well…

  20. Karen

    I share in the happiness of this conversation being brought to the table of the collective consciousness. These are very important ideas for everyone to be aware of.

    I wholeheartedly agree that success is “the sense that one contributes to the world and in turn, receives love and satisfaction.”

    That’s it. That’s the key to success. How much can the world change through living by these words? It really is that simple. People exhaust the possibilities of complicating simple ideas.

    For a moment, I’d like to take a step back.

    In order for a person to contribute to the world, they must be conscious of necessary contributions needing to be made.

    So much of the world unconsciously runs through the motions, day by day, without question, consuming, fueling the fires of the few proud people who engineered the system that way.

    This is where the problem lies.

    We can’t love and contribute when we’re asleep…before we’re successful, we must

    wake up…

    My contribution to the world, today, and tomorrow, is to help someone wake up from their sweet deep dreaming, and realize the world needs help. Perhaps, one person at a time, I can help humanity become more aware of itself and its surroundings.

    What will your contribution be today?

  21. Bruno Herzog

    Thorn, I loved to read that! Its so good to see words that translates my feelings and lights the path to action.
    Here in Brazil most of the people still define success in the old ways, its all about money!
    And now thinking, I define success as responsability, the power to take responsabilities and to become aware of your actions, to be in community and to act in a way to empower each one with the possibility of acting different. Success is an act of love, to be in harmony with yourself, loving and being loved.
    Can I translate that with the proper copyrights and stuff to publish it in my blog? I just feel like the word must be spread!
    Many blessings! Thanks for sharing =D
    Bruno Herzog

  22. Thorn

    Hey folks, I am out of town at my mother’s 85th birthday, so don’t have time for a long reply but want to say thank you, thank you, thank you, for continuing to bring such thoughtfulness to bear on this topic.

    Bruno, you have my permission to translate this with credit for your blog. Thanks for asking. Let me know when it is up.

  23. Lisa

    Was it the King of Siam that said he wanted to measure his country’s progress in “Gross domestic happiness”? I think this is the benchmark we’re looking for. By this definition, I have a VERY successfull life.
    In my experience it is possible to change the rules by refusing to play by them. The over-culture does not have much defence against those who choose with honesty a more personally fulfilling path.
    What we actually need is to empower each other to make personally fulfilling choices, and to encourage examination of the things the over-culture tells us we need.
    Live in Joy

  24. Soli

    Happy birthday to your mother, Thorn.

    This is an interesting post/discussion to read while I also watch the documentary Inside Job.
    1. yes, I know, not giving full attention to either, but I am picking up enough of both.
    2. If anyone reading this has NOT seen this documentary, consider this your mandate that you MUST. If ever there was an object lesson in how the current perception of success can lead to abject failure, this is it.

    For me, being successful means I have a foundation on which I can stand to contribute to community, to feel like I am both giving and receiving to benefit myself and others. (Take that, Ayn Rand) Without that support, it’s not easy to find the resources in order to make those contributions. No one can drink from an empty well.

  25. John Beckett

    Wow – I read Thorn’s post on Friday, but didn’t come back for the discussion. Lots of good thoughts here – let me add mine, even if I am a bit late.

    Success is having enough, and having the wisdom to recognize it; success is doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

  26. David Salisbury

    This goes along so well with that article you forwarded “no one cares if you succeed”.
    I find more and more that when I do readings, SO many people need to hear that success should be important to them and no one else. It must be a big global message.

  27. Tony Rella

    I like your definition of success. I’m also coming to think of success as having an integrity of being that can endure the changing of fortune. The Wheel of Fortune keeps coming up in my draws, and I think about all the ways my life has changed beyond my control, and all the happenstance that comes into the overcultural markers of success or failure. The tides of economic forces, public opinion, history, and happenstance all keep changing.

  28. Aine

    Re: the question about Gross Domestic Happiness, I believe it was actually Bhutan.


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