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

Category Archives: Life Philosophies

How do you measure success? Part 2

For those that missed it, last week I explored the question of how we think about success and the frameworks we’ve used in terms of how we measure it.  If you didn’t get a chance to read and reflect on that previously, I’d suggest going back to read it here.  It’s going to make this week’s essay make a bit more sense.

How do you measure success in life?

I ended last week posing this question again because I think it’s actually pretty important for us to have a chance to reflect on the question.  Without a doubt, our answer to this question drives everything we do and every decision we make.  How can we really live a fulfilled meaningful life without understanding or at least reflecting on this question?

This week, I’m going to propose an answer with the caveat that this is my personal answer, for me, right now.  I haven’t pondered enough yet about the multitude of answers that one may come up with for this particular question and if your answer differs from mine, I’d encourage you to leave your answer in the comment section below.

Without further ado, I think:

Success is measured by the number of lives you’ve changed.

Let me explain my word choice here a little.  There’s two important things to note:

  • I chose the word “changed” and I want to define it a bit here.  A changed life is one that you’ve touched so deeply that it’s actually changed a person’s values/beliefs – not just behavior.  This is quite subtle.  For example, Facebook and Google have significantly changed the way I find things or communicate with friends.  They’ve certainly changed my life in that it’s made me way more efficient, but those services by themselves have not “changed” my life according to this definition.
  • I purposely included the word “number of” lives.  Some people may disagree arguing that quantity should not have anything to do with it.  Although I do agree that quality (changed lives) is much more important then quantity (number of), it’s important to realize that truly great people are the ones that have believed and stood for something so strongly that their message has reached a critical mass of people.

This answer is in stark contrast to the other answers I provided in Part 1:

  • American Dream: pursuit of money and things
  • Being happy: pursuit of self happiness
  • Impact: pursuit of power

To make this idea more concrete, I’d offer the following examples as people I’d consider to have changed lives:

  • Moms or dads that positively influence their kids and infuse them with the proper values to be successful in life
  • CEOs and business leaders that sacrifice their own position or power to really serve their employees instead of vice versa
  • Average guys that when robbed of wallet at knifepoint, offered coat also (full story here)
  • Local men and women that offer their time mentoring disadvantaged kids or serving the homeless


As I write these examples, one thought keeps echoing in my head – Successful people are ones that care deeply about someone other then themselves.  What’s funny is that we’ve all grown up with the appropriate vocabulary already to describe this measurement of success.  And it’s contained one word.  Love.

Could it be as simple as that?  I think so.

I’ve never seen Rent and have no clue what it’s about, but I felt like this song was appropriate:



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.

When it’s all over: Economy, Depression, and Roofs

It’s 2008.  We’re officially in a depression – my house price is dropping like an airplane that’s lost its engines, I lost so much money in my portfolio I’ve stopped caring, my friends are all losing their jobs, and every conversation I overhear revolves around doom and gloom.  But something different happened today, something I want to share:

I have a rental home (don’t get into landlording, many stories to tell here, but I’ll save it for another time), and recently I’ve had a pretty bad moisture problem.  Water is getting into the bedrooms, soaking the walls and carpets, and mold and shrooms have grown inside the house.  It’s any homeowner’s worst nightmare, and it costs an arm and a leg to fix.  Needless to say, it has not been a very pleasant few weeks.

But its fixed now, I’ve had at least 5 different people come inspect/fix things.  I’ve been informed that a majority of the problem is inadequate drainage of water from the roof, so today, I reluctantly decided to climb on the roof, rake the leaves, and unclog the drains.  It’s messy, it’s stinky, and it’s hard work.

I know this might sound cheesy, but as I was standing there on top of the roof, a weird feeling overwhelmed me – a feeling that anyone who’s been on top of a mountain looking across the vast landscape might know.  That after all the doom and gloom, all will be well with the world.  I saw all the little houses around me, the large trees that had been leaving their leaves on my roof looked less intimidating, the cars parked on the sidewalks looked like toys, and in the distant, I could see cars busily continuing their daily routine.


Standing on top of something big makes you see the world from a different perspective.  It mights you feel small, and it reminds you to stop worrying about all the tiny problems in your life.  What if your startup fails?  What if that round of financing doesn’t close?  What if your competitors are faster than you?  Just stop worrying.  Because in the end, the world will keep turning, and everything will be all right.

I suggest you try out your roof too.  It’s fun.  And it feels good.

Read more startup lessons from bma…