Brian Ma's Blog (@zealoustiger)

Weekly insights from an Entreprenuer: To spend one year as a tiger is better than to live forever as sheep

How do you measure success? Part 1

Entrepreneur or not, maybe of us have probably asked ourselves the question of what we want to do with our lives. Even if you haven’t, someone else has asked you – your parents, your significant other, your boss, etc.  It’s an important question, because the answer we come up with becomes the overriding factor in how we think, act, spend our time, and ultimately how we know if our life is (or was) “successful”.

Depending on who we are and how we were brought up, there’s generally three common answers to this.  I know I’m successful when:

  1. I’ve gotten a good education, found a good job, married a great wife/husband, have a nice car/house, made $5 million, and raised my kids to do the same.
  2. I’m happy 90% of the time
  3. I’ve made an impact

The American Dream

We’d all be lying to ourselves if #1 wasn’t at least a framework for how we think about success, but I’m hopeful that many of you reading this are well beyond thinking that that is what life is all about – so I’m not gonna comment much about this one and move straight to #2 and #3.

Being Happy

Most people in the world get over #1 because at some point in their life they realize it’s either too shallow, worldly (money can’t buy happiness), or just plain unattainable.  So they point their life compasses to just “be happy”.  There’s nothing wrong with being happy, but I’m going to argue that it’s a horrible measure of success.  Let me offer two ways to think about this one:

  1. A lot of things can bring happiness: computer games, a promotion, a vacation, picking up a great deal, drugs, sex, power, etc.  You name it.  The list goes on and on…
  2. There’s certainly been a lot of times where you weren’t happy, yet you were glad you went through it – conquering a fear, working really hard for something, confronting a relationship in order to mend it, etc.

If the % of time that we are happy is so volatile and things that don’t make us happy are good for us, then certainly optimizing for the % of time that we are happy can’t be a good measure of success right?  To take it one step further, isn’t this metric a bit… selfish?

Making an Impact

The goal of most startups is to make an impact – to reshape how people think or to change the way millions of people behave.  To make things more efficient, more effective, or just more fun.  If you think about it, it’s actually quite amazing how much our lives have changed in a very short amount of time.  When I was in second grade, to get online, you had to wait like 5 minutes for this really loud thing in your computer to use up your phone lines so no one could contact you if there was an emergency, cell phone meant the giant heavy thing that doesn’t fit in your pocket that no one has, cartoons were recorded and played on this funny thing called a VCR, and friends were the people that didn’t write on your walls.

Many of you reading this will likely have way better ‘how my life has been changed by technology’ stories than me, but my point is that a lot of people have worked really hard to make a lot of things that have really impacted our lives for the better.  But is making an impact in this way a good measure of success?

I certainly think we’re getting much closer to with this line of thinking.  Without much further prodding, we may all be happy with this being a yes, but lets consider all those millionaires who’ve “made it” and yet in their dying breath, wished for one thing – more time with loved ones.  Making time for what really mattered in life so there would be no room for regrets.

Posing the Question… again

What then is a good way to measure success?  I have a possible answer that I’ll post in Part 2 of this series, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.  This question is important enough to deserve at least a couple minutes of our time to reflect on.  Would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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