11 Successful People on How They Define Success
“My definition of success is not yours, it’s not anyone else's. Success is about your level of comfort with yourself."
I’ve interviewed many successful people in my career as a reporter at FORTUNE magazine and author of The Profile. And the question I love to ask at the end of each interview is: "How do you define success?"
That single question gives you a brief glimpse into their world — it explains why they do what they do, what motivates them, and how they measure the outcome of their efforts. Do they see success as a measure of status, money, and achievement? Or do they equate success with personal fulfillment?
Here’s how 11 exceptional people, from CEOs to professional athletes, answer the question: “How do you define success?”
1. Mark Bertolini, Bridgewater co-CEO
“Impact. I want to share ideas that people make better. I don’t want to be remembered for my name, I want to be remembered for the idea. If the idea does something to change the world and make it a better place, that will have been impact.”
2. Lynsey Addario, war photojournalist
“I equate happiness with success. Success, for me, has never ever been financial. I think success is fulfillment. It’s about people feeling like they are doing what they need to be doing and sort of being the person they need to be and also feeling content and happy with their lives.
“You can be successful at anything. The important thing is that the person is in the place they feel they need to be.”
3. Francis Ngannou, UFC Champion
“Success is a balance of personal happiness and accomplishment. I have seen a billionaire who I would consider a poor person, and I have seen what you would consider a poor person to be a rich person because he has what money cannot buy.
“Anyone can have money. Money comes and goes, but happiness is not for everybody.”
4. Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare
I think about this a lot. Someone said, "Foursquare is so successful." And I was like, "Are we? What's the measure of success?" We employ 350 people. We have the capability to be profitable in a given quarter. Our tools and technology can help in really great ways. So I look at this place, and I think this company is on its path to being successful.
Personally? I don't think [my first company] Dodgeball was successful. Did I make some money off of it by selling it to Google? Yes. Was that the thing that made me super happy? No. What makes me happy is building things that change the way people use public space. That's success for me.
This is a good lesson: Find the thing that you want to work on. Find the thing that brings you joy and energizes you, and then keep working on that thing until you feel successful at it.
5. Ana Lorena Fabrega, author and educator
“Any education that’s successful is one that helps you understand what you’re good at, what’s meaningful to you, and what you’re capable of doing on your own with the resources that you have. That, to me, is success.”
6. Jeff Immelt, former CEO of GE
“[Success is] fulfillment. It’s getting the most out of whatever capabilities I have, That, to me, is success.”
7. Jacob Goldstein, author and host of NPR’s ‘Planet Money’
“Success is subjective. For me, it is being able to do work that I like and believe in, and also having time and energy to devote to my family.”
8. Amelia Boone, four-time obstacle race champion
“Success is more of a feeling. It’s like a contentment and a confidence with who you are and what you put out into the world.
“I’ve come to realize that I don’t care about monetary success, I don’t care about certain types of success that we always associate with it. For me, it’s always been about being in alignment with who I am and how I treat other people and living according to those values. If I have all of those aligned, and I’m following my internal compass, then I view that as being successful.”
9. Sidra Qasim, co-founder and CEO of Atoms
“I don’t think you can define success as one big journey. I think you can define it in the next 10 to 15 years. I think success is defined in the small moments. I also found out that sometimes when we think of something as a success, there’s still work to be done.”
10. Kara Lynn Joyce, three-time Olympic swimmer
“Success is contagious. As an athlete, there’s nothing better than seeing your teammates do really well. When you allow yourself to be really happy for other people and realize you can lean into someone else’s success. I can have that too, and there’s enough for all of us. Success is contagious.
“I think success is: ‘At the end of the day, I tried my best, I did what I was capable of doing, and I’m proud of the effort that I gave.’ As an athlete, it’s easy to get wrapped up in other people’s external opinions of success. I’m a four-time Olympic silver medalist. You’d be shocked at how many times people say, ‘I’m so sorry for your failure to win a gold medal.’ Someone else’s idea of success may not be tied to my idea of success, and I had to learn that as an athlete.
“To me, success is, ‘Am I doing something to make a difference? Am I really making an impact? Am I using my skills to the best that I can?’ At the end of the day, if I can say ‘yes’ to those, then I can put my head on my pillow and rest easy and know that this was a success.”
11. Robert Hoge, author
“Success to me means being whole. And I think it goes to the point of saying, ‘Are you at peace with who you are? Do you feel like most parts of your life are working well most of the time?’
“For me, success is that sense of whether it's overcoming physical, emotional, psychological, financial, or whatever kind of other struggles to get somewhere that you are comfortable.
“My definition of success is not yours, it’s not anyone else's. Success is about your level of comfort with yourself. Do you feel whole and fulfilled? Do you feel engaged with the world, with your family, with your friends? Do you feel like you're doing something important and adding something valuable to the world?
“And if you feel like you're doing that most of the time, then that sounds pretty successful to me.”