Success and significance: the difference.

You are successful. There’s no doubt about it. You wouldn’t be where you are today, had you not been successful in reaching goals. And you know you’re successful because you have some sort of yardstick, a measurement of success. Maybe you feel successful; maybe you don’t. Sure, you may have fallen short of some goals, but I bet you’re fully aware of many goals you not only reached, but exceeded in the last year.

Whatever our vision of success is, we measure it. That’s how we know we’ve succeeded. Once we reach a goal, we have reached success. We can cross it off our list; we’ve achieved it. It’s finite. And then comes the inevitable question:

“What’s next?”

That question gnaws at all successful people. I had a conversation recently with a friend who is an academic. We talked about the depression that often follows tenure. In academia, the holy grail is tenure, and achieving tenure is a grueling process of five or more years. It’s a marathon of putting your life on hold while you pour all your energy and focus into achieving this goal. But it appears most academics, once they achieve tenure, go through a period of questioning what it was all for, whether they even want to be in academia, and why they’re there in the first place.

The more we focus on success, the easier it is to forget what is truly significant.

In the chaos of each day, it is easy to forget why we do what we do, which means we forget what it was that caused us to take certain actions or spend time on certain activities. When work becomes about action or activity for its own sake, it loses its meaning.

When success becomes our reason, we begin to worship scaffolding.

A house of worship is a place to gather, to seek and contemplate truth, to experience what’s been described as the “densified reality” of a spiritual experience.

What does the house of worship itself have to do with the experience we house there? How much does the building, the physical space, have to do with what we may experience there?

We humans need structure. We need something tangible, something we can see and touch in order to believe. To believe in the truth behind that thing we can’t see or touch: the meaning behind our work.

So, we erect buildings. And because we want to beautify and protect the building, we put up scaffolding. Before long, we forget why it is there and why we came there in the first place.

We begin to worship the structure itself, the building, even the scaffolding.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

And yet, here we are, worshipping our sales process, our activity output, our metrics. We worship the building and its scaffolding.

When what is important is difficult to measure, what we measure becomes important. When we measure success, success metrics become important for their own sake, rather than what they are meant to be: simply a milestone toward our real goal, our purpose.

Measure What Matters

It’s a little bit like counting the “vanity metrics” of likes and views on a social media post, when what we really want is human connection. To see and be seen. To hear and be heard. To understand and be understood. To love and be loved.

In his excellent book, Measure What Matters, John Doerr says: “Our goals are servants of our purpose, not the other way around.” It’s a reminder to continue to update and modify our goals, to examine whether they are still serving us, serving our purpose, or if they’ve taken the place of purpose altogether.

“Our goals are servants of our purpose, not the other way around.”

-John Doerr

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Lara Hodgson and hearing her speak here in Bozeman a couple weeks ago. Lara is a phenomenal woman, a successful serial entrepreneur, and a wise human being. One of the things she said that really resonated with me was: “Success is finite. Significance is infinite. Be significant!”

Success is finite.

So, how do you “be significant?” What is significance, and how do you measure it? How do you know if what you’re doing is significant; how do you know if your life mattered?

I’m not 100% sure. But there are clues. Through the process of asking myself some tough questions, the pieces are beginning to fall into place.

By what yardstick do you measure your life’s worth? Ask yourself these seven questions:

  1. What is my vision of success?
  2. Why do I really do what I do?
  3. What’s truly important about my work?
  4. What is important in my life?
  5. How does my life matter?
  6. To whom do I matter?
  7. Is someone’s life better because I lived?

What would you add? How do you answer these questions? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Hannah


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6 Comments

  1. Hannah,
    I love it thanks for posting and sharing your words! I look for motivation to inspire me to finish a major painting and couldn’t get moving. I like to check out blogs to push me sometimes. Thanks for being an example of the action and movement I was looking for to complete my work!

    1. Warren – thank you for sharing that. Appreciate you visiting the blog, and I’m so happy to hear this post inspired action. Best of luck completing your painting – may it be significant!

  2. I love this post – it reminds me of what Adam Grant talks about in his book Originals. When it comes to the evolution of our “career self-esteem” if you will, first we feel unimportant, then eventually we progress to the point where we feel important (a lot of people get stuck at this stage), after which we feel the desire to work on something important. In other words, the focus shifts off of ourselves onto the work itself and then to others through coaching, mentorship, and consulting. Thanks for sharing these valuable insights Hannah!

    1. What a great example from a great book, Trent! I loved that book – I’m a huge fan looking of Adam Grant’s work – and had forgotten about that example. Thanks for the reminder! 🌟

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