Defining Success: If You Don't Know What You Want, You Won't Know When You've Gotten It

By Sarah Winfrey on 29 August 2007 (Updated 18 March 2010) 41 comments
Photo: runzelkorn

When it comes to your life, what do you want? How does your money fit into that?

If you can't answer these two questions, you won't ever know when you've been successful In fact, it might be worse than that: you might achieve what you thought you wanted, or what all of your friends want, and suddenly realize that it doesn't satisfy you. In order to make sure you're going the right direction for you, it's important to figure out what you want from your life (to find your definition of "success").

Why It Works

We're all going after something. That's part of being alive. As long as we're living and acting, we are headed towards something. Even if we don't want to live, we're going towards our goal (yes, death is a goal!). Our lives are going somewhere. We're caught up in the stream of living and we'll end up somewhere.

Luckily for us, we have some say about where we can end up. Sure, we all die in the end, but we have the abilitiy to decide what is important and make choices towards that end. If you're saying, "Sure, Sarah, we all know that. Make this entry worth reading, already!" then tell me what you're living for. Go ahead, tell me what your life's goal is. Tell me why you're on this earth and how all the different parts of your life fit into that.

If you can do that, you're ahead of most of us. Deciding what we want, what we're about, takes a lifetime of deliberate, focused introspection. But we can figure out different parts of this whole at different times in our lives, and we can live deliberately towards them.

How it Works

If you're not sure how to get started in this process, here is a process that helps.

1. Take out a blank sheet of paper. In 10 minutes, list as many things as possible that you have not done, that you would regret not doing if you died tonight. To the best of your ability, don't stop writing and don't censor or even think too hard about anything. Just write. You might find some crazy things coming out the end of your pen, and that's OK. Let them be.

2. Read your list. Notice any internal reactions you have to different items on the list. Note these in the margins next to your list so you can remember them later.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

3. Step away from the project for 3-7 days, except to read your list once a day. This lets the list percolate in your mind. Often, writing down our desires brings to the forefront things that we haven't thought about in a while, or voices things we avoid voicing any other time. It can take us a few days to become accustomed to these thngs being a reality in our lives. We learn to accept, "Yes, I am the person whose life won't feel complete if I never help the refugees in Darfur," or, "Yup, I'm the busy entrepreneur who really wants a desk job so I can spend more time with my kids before they leave home."

4. Come back to the project and read the list again. Note any internal reactions that have changed as you let the ideas percolate.

5. Start pulling the different items on your list together and write a statement that encompasses what you're about. In the beginning, this can be a list of more general cateogories that cover all of the items on your list. For instance, my list would containg such items as "helping people grow" and "working with groups to help them better understand and support each other." My larger category might be, "working with people, as individuals and in groups, to help them better understand and support the growing process in themselves and others. Eventually, this statement will be less like a list and more like a sentence or two, but the list is fine to start.

6. Write down and commit to one step you can take this week! today! right now! to help move your life more in line with your statement. Make sure that this is small enough to be achievable and is something you can maintain.

7. Repeat stps 3-6 until you have a statement that feels right. Most people know when they've hit on the one that's right for them. It moves many to tears, but some also feel joy or peace when they find it. Continue with the small goals until your life looks like what you want it to be.

8. Live the life you've designed. Achieve your definition of success.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Sitting here right now, I could probably list some things I might like to do, but for the most part, if I were to die tonight, I can't think of a thing I would really regret not having done. Does this mean I am already at the end? Or have I achieved satori? Mainly, my life is just spent trying not to be too bored. I gave up on goals a long time ago. So, what's the purpose of life have to say about that?

Guest's picture
Hunter

"if I were to die tonight, I can't think of a thing I would really regret not having done. Does this mean I am already at the end?"

Dude! Thats exactly how I feel. Here's a sample of some things on my "bucket" list:

Regret no having :

- Dated more "hot" women
- made hit movies
- designed best selling video games
- produced a successful TV show
- made more money
- gone back to school and learn some "cool" money making skills
- been paid lots to travel the world and teach people stuff

WTF ? Sounds like a teenager's fantasy...my goals are all adolescent fantasies. Its embarrassing :o

Guest's picture

Many people don't take these simple steps and wonder why they don't get the things that they want. And it should be:

If you don't know what you want, that's exactly what you'll get.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is the setup
1. lifelong goals
A. and sub goals
a. ways to work toward those goals in the short term

Here are my goals
1. Have children/good wife
A. meet girls
a. read about the science of relationships
b. learn how to do things that would make me a more attractive partner (cooking, dressing well, controlling my emotions, ect.)

2. Live to be 100 in good health
A. read about nutrition/exercise
a. exercise
b. eat the foods I've found to be healthy
c. practice mild calorie restriction

3. get a career I like
A. finish grad school
a. study
b. read journals that publish articles in my area
B. figure out what sort of activities I find fun in my area

4. learn everything I can
A. use computers and the internet to greatest advantage
a. find out what services are offered by various websites
b. read blogs by individuals more tech savvy than myself
c. learn how to write programs and webpages
d. figure out how to use services offered by the university library

5. be financially sound
A. read about financial solutions for individials
a. read about common problems people have financially
b. figure out how much money I need to put away to retire well
B. keep an eye out for entrepreneurial opportunities
a. read about how other people in my area started businesses
b. read about success AND FAILURE stories in my area to see why one might succeed and fail
c. read about patent law

Guest's picture
Guest

Don't expect happiness. You won't get it. People let you down. In the end, you die in your own arms. It's all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?

Guest's picture
Paddy

(Don't expect happiness.)
I agree don´t expect happiness, work for it and earn it demand it from yourself.

(You won't get it)
If you don´t find it at least a life questing for it will have been worthwhile.

(People let you down)
True but they also pick you up :).

(In the end, you die in your own arms)
If so live a life that ensures those arms are filled with the strenght and warmth of love and memories,let those arms carry you on to eternity with no regrets.

(It's all a big nothing.)
It´s what we make of it friend.

What makes you think you're so special?
My fighting spirit but I don´t think I am special I know it.

Hopefully this cheers you up lad if not I wish you well.

Guest's picture
Guest

Am truly sorry for your inner pain.

Guest's picture
Charlotte

I'm with Guest no. 1. There may be some things I regret I did (like having a power struggle with my daughter) but I cannot think of anything that I would regret I did not. What would be the point?

Guest's picture
Phil

In 10 minutes, list as many things as possible that you have not done, that you would regret not doing if you died tonight.

 

1. Publishing a fantasy book or comic-book

2. Participate in the development of a computer game (or a RPG)

3. create a line of Educative Toys 

 

Thats pretty much  the 10 minutes list

 

Guest's picture

This article is so good...
I can't understand why it hasn't reiceved more diggs... i guess it's just because of the more tech-oriented nature of Digg...

Thanks for sharing a great tip, i'll try it asap! :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Wow, there were some fatalistic and defeated responses here from some lost souls drowning in a sea of self doubt and frustration-

my god, have some vision , the only person who holds us back is OURSELVES!

happiness and fulfillment aren't "out there" - YOU have to BE happiness and success - YOU are the creator

those defeated souls have it all backwards - life is only a mirror of YOU and what you habitually feel,think,act and project

success, wealth and happiness can be REAL for YOU - but YOU have to create it

atrophy, mediocrity, lack of vision, unhappiness, self defeatedness = weakness

be strong- want more , get more , give more, live more, be more

Guest's picture
VS

The article definitely woke me up. But yeah, lets say I write down the most important things that I "should" have been involved with, what kind of situation does it leave me with right now? should I leave what I am doing right now and proceed in a totally different direction since what I always wanted to do is in total out of sync with my present job....What happens to the fear of failure? What if you dont succeed in your next journey and one, end up, repenting later that he/she should have stayed put to the earlier boring but steady career ? where does the failure of the pursuit fit in? This is clearly hypothetical but I am pretty confident..i am expressing my reservations in line with many of those who already have this view

Guest's picture
Robert Rugambwa

It's been stated that FEAR is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. It is worth chasing a goal and fail at it than to live a safe, easy life and end up right where you did not want to end up. Your direction will determine your destination, and your destination should determine your direction.

Look at it this way:- Person one tries his goal, fails at it, and moves on, knowing he gave it his best shot.

Person two never attempts his goal, and at the end, still has failed, cos he never reached his goal.

Person one has the chance, no matter how small to get to his destination/goal. Person two, well, will never.

As they say, chance favors the prepared mind!

Guest's picture
Bahar

I wanted to thank you for your comment did sort of save my life.
I had been stuck since 5-6 years ago and there was just this mental knot in my mind with which I had been struggling since I entered the university studying a subject I was not really interested in.
I felt the same as guest1 after I finished reading the article. But later, your comment by the aid of the brain storming and quickly noting the first impression on each item enlisted, enlightened my mind and solved this chronic problem I was suffering from for ages.

THANK YOU

Guest's picture
Guest

person 2(p2) does have a goal-to have a safe and easy going life. his destination is laymanville; therefore, p2 plots out his course to laymanville. p2 arrives in laymanville and it is exactly as p2 imagined it would be, safe and easy. however, p2 inevitably realizes that he must survive and so to do that p2 must collect provisions-new goal.

p2 realizes that provisions must be found so p2 goes out to search. the search lasts two days. p2 has barely collected enough provisions to survive and p2 is exhausted. quickly, p2 realizes that to live an easy life is not an easy task to undertake, especially alone.

soon, p2's mind is clouded and p2 is forced to think about the next step. darkness envelops the daylight and the animals of the night take their place. suddenly, the environment does not the seem safe. strange noises replace a soothing calm atmosphere and paranoia sets in. p2 now reasses the situation and comes to the conclusion that safe and easy were only illusions he created in his mind. there is only an appearance of safe and easy but when one looks closer safety and easy are replaced.

point that i am trying to make is that both persons in your explanation have goals. one chooses to go after a worthy goal(career, higher education, the works) i presume and the other an unworthy goal(to not have goal or never accomplish worthy goals).

life is not easy. there is a constant never-ending sruggle to survive by defying the elements. just because one feels good or bad about doing something doesnt mean that survival is out of the equation or success and failure are looming around the corner. if your killed while try to accomplish your goal, did you fail at your goal? depends on what the goal is. for example, if your goal was to not die, then you failed. however, if your goal was something else besides not to die, then no you did not fail to accomplish the task at hand.

i understand the pleasure to post notes of inspiration and misleading explanations that may be as clear as day in one's mind but turns out to be harder to explain. however, i suggest that you try the following goal: critically analyze before concluding. you are on the right track but you have a few holes to fill.

Guest's picture
Guest

Great article, thank you!

Guest's picture
Guest

That we need decorate our life and when we died, we 'll got nothing to regret. It's really a purpose that we always want to touch.
That we felt so lose heart(in love,works...). We can be killed or died in many ways such as: accidents,hoary age, or just a disease...). But that's life, we can die every time, every where, life is not simple like what we thought about it: "Life is so soft, so easy..." If it's just easy,soft like that, there's no exciting things in our life, and we'll have no goals for life. And we lived for what? Cause we'll all die but you should chose and decide how will we die? or which way will we die...

Guest's picture
YB

Everyone has to die one day.agreed.
So yes the final destination is death indeed.
But then we all can decide to some extent, depending on our situations(financial,social or family related), which path we take starting at birth and ending at death.
life is not a book with a fixed script .
The script is written by man & god together.That is why the Geeta(sacred hindu scripture) says - "karm kar phal ki iccha mat kar".(do what you feel is right for you to do , and leave the returns to god)
So friends - just do whatever you want to do to be happy(without compromising morally ofcourse) ,b'coz you never know when the final destination arrives.

Guest's picture
Guest

What if you dont know what you want to do for a living how do u find out.

Guest's picture

Well put! JB

Guest's picture
Les

Hi everyone!
I've just read an amazing book called 'Ask And It's Given' by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Roughly, it's all about learning to manifest the law of attraction to create anything you want in your life. I don't know about you but, I always find it a bit tedious making lists of goals and setting objectives etc. This book teaches how to think yourself to the place you want to be, without lots of effort and strife. It says you should rellish the process. I'm experiencing big results and have a new zest for life since I read it.
Give it a go!

Guest's picture
pj

life ay we ar all leading to the same destination or so we think. thats wher religion comes in to it and i think if u dont know anything about it maybe have a look down that road it might be what your looking for. Or if it comes to u dont be so quick to dismiss it. dont worry i wont start preaching :)

Guest's picture
Bahar

Thank you Sara.
Thank you guest no. 17
Thank you all...

Guest's picture
Guest

There are always those in the world who will give up on life. The only real problems with this is that
1. they often want others to resign themselves to the same mind-numbing fate of never stiving, and
2. their tombstone is always incorrect. It will state the day their body left their mother's womb, and the day it stopped physically functioning, rather than the day they really died - which is the one when they chose to give up on stiving for anything in life.

Me? I would far rather die standing tall and strong, stiving to my final breath to reach beyond that which I have already accomplished, rather than living on my knees in a state of zomby-ism!

Guest's picture
Guest

comment above was a response to comment 10.

Guest's picture
Guest 40

I'm new here and have a question ...

I have always known what I wanted in life and I've achieved every goal I've ever set until the end of 2009.

I do believe that nothing lasts forever (friends, family, jobs, material goods etc.) and that the only thing that will stay with me for the whole of this life is my body so I do have to take good care of it.

Today nothing and I mean absolutely nothing motivates me. Everything is fine (nothing bad and nothing good). Friends say that I should do things that I enjoy, but I don't know what I enjoy.

I am bored and want to set a new target, but I don't have a clue in what direction to go.

Have any of you had a phase like this or is this a depression?

Guest's picture
Guest

I feel a it similar, Im still very ambitious in my career but my personal life I have lost so much in regards to what I want to do next in my life and Im not sure why that is..feel lost a lot... I am 43 without children. I think I want them but cant make a total decision. Its like major events scare me and I take the road that's safer but then I feel sad because of it...

Guest's picture
olivia

my dreams
1. find a job that i can have fun with amd love
2. find amazing freinds that can will make me happy
3.find my soul mate/true love
4. travel around the world
5. be a singer for weddings
6. be a dancer on cruise ships ext
7. be a snorkiling instructure
8. work with the dolphins
9. be a counciler
10. live near the beach like a fun tropical island thats sourounded by great things to do and interesting people
11.try acting
12. get elicence to ride a moterbike
13. live life to the full
15. change somones life
16. help the poor
18. move away from home as soon as posible
19. snorkle in the best reef in the world
20. go to someone who can speak to spirits
21. sell a painting for 1000000 dollers
22. save the wales and cages hens ext
23. never stop being a veggetarian
24. write a book
25. meet myley cyrus
26. meet the unique and funniest person in the world
27. laugh as much as i can
28. find out who i am
29. be confident
30. try medertation with the buddas
thats all i can think of so far (:

Guest's picture
olivia

hey i know it might be really hard trying to find out who you want to be and i think that so many people have the same problem.
first take some time to get to know ur self find out what you injoy doing and what makes you truly happy. try and picture yourself doing all kinds off different things and see witch one feels the best. theres so many different oppertunitys out there.
so good luck :D

Guest's picture
Guest

I can think of a few things I would regret not doing before I died, but it's all simple stuff... Never writing a book, never been kissed, never leaving the country... It's all invalid. Really, this list has just stressed me out more. I have no major goals outside of going to college.. But what for? What would I major in if I have no major career/life goals? And just vaguely enjoy anything?

Guest's picture
Griff

I've still got a problem. I don't know what I want in life, because so much of the universe/multiverse/reality/existance is composed of things which I do not understand and I'm not aware of. What I really want is to know these things so I can make an informed decision, but I don't know. And I am not sure if we can.

I was thinking of increasing my self confidence. That's great, but then is buiding the ego a good thing? Recently I had an ego loss and realized the potential for my personality to be different. Since then, I've been trying out different personalities and undergoing changes. I am changing constantly, and because I'm in school in college, my life is almost falling apart. I don't know what I want to do simply because my goals are no longer consistent.

A big problem is I don't know if I want to live for ME following PASSIONS or live for OTHERS. I have actually come to the point where I don't believe in morals the same way I used to. I kind of feel like trying to change the world would be a waste (the problem is I really believe I have the capability to do that-- with great power comes great responsibility, etc), but this would totally come in conflict with my great loves and interests in life. However, this IS a passion... some part of my ego DOES want to change the world entirely. I want to wake people up or something, have people realize things that society simply ignores or assumes.

On the other hand though, not worrying about that would be such a relief. sometimes I just want the world to go into chaos or anarchy because I think it would be more interesting... and I want to be a soldier for justice... but even my definition of justice keeps changing. Should people have the right to own property at the exclusion of others which was originally obtained through force either decades or centuries ago? It not, how can I try to make the world a more wealthy, productive, or happy place?

I'm almost the epitome of a person really NOT KNOWING what he wants. My ego almost wants... everything. Consumed by greed and my ego. And I'm feeling a strong disconnect now. This is very confusing.

Guest's picture
gridsleep

You make perfect sense. An end of the world scenario would demand heroic action. No time for laundry or grocery shopping. The kind of life that raises the hair on the back of your neck at the slightest noise, or the motion of a shadow in the shadows. The kind of life that demands you do the right thing to the most extreme extent in the blink of an eye without time for doubt. The kind of life that leaves no time for introspection. You're right or you're dead. That's the kind of life that few people actually live, these days. Soldiers for lengthy periods of time, police officers and fire fighters for short bursts. For the rest of us? Tedium. That's when you start questioning the meaning of life. No one questions the meaning of life when bullets are flying or swords swinging. In those moments, life demands to keep happening without wondering why. I guess the trick is, realizing the tedius stuff is just as vital, only much much slower to become critical. Just realize that everything is vital. You just need to adjust your sense of speed. Think of the tedious life as a very slow life or death struggle. It might change perspective.

Guest's picture
goggles

o boy all comments are amazing; glad i came here. last year i completed many things yet realized the main thing that is holding me back, from really moving forward, is still to be dealt with so am glad to note the above reply regarding FEAR. anyways my goals are 1. to not feed of off others good energy and ensure to always create my own 2. Keep all Simples 3.constantly clear clutter and obstacles 4. go off round the world immediately!...n take guitar, thats hung on wall; for twenty years and still needs to be learnt!

Guest's picture
Guest

How do you feel regret when you are dead?

Guest's picture
Guest

lol that's pretty funny how you're comment is realistic but sticks out and makes sense

Guest's picture
AppleTree

I am so touched by the comments u guys made. But anyway, life is wonderful, cause there are so many beaufitul things in this world, like the music, whenever i heard the fantastic song or music, i will be moved, and think how marvlous human is, cause they can compose such beautiful music or song.
My goal is sort of a fantasy, too. but i like it. I want to travel around the world, and i want to have a lot of Monchhichis, and i want to make friends with people who are from different countries, i want to live a wonderful life, etc.
My friend told me that 'do what u want, and **** the rest.' and i like this sentence very much.
By the way, it's my first time to come to this website, and i love it very much. It's amazing.

Guest's picture
Guest

As a child I was a loner....I had no friends.....I am 23 and...I still dont have a real friend from whom I can get happiness from...All the people whom I considered as my friends were just a mere taking advantage of me.....I want people around me to love....I want at least one colleauge in office with whom I can have lunch..... If i feel like hanging out or doing crazy stuff....there should be some1......I dont mean I need a boyfriend......All I need is a TRUE FRIEND.....

I want to take revenge from people who have made a fool of me....

I want to proove to some people around me that I have brains and capability of prooving myself....

I know I am a smart lady...But I need one oportunity to prrove myself....

I have wasted so many years of my life not doing some things which I could have....

I need a happy family.... All my parents do i work work work....I love them..And i know they work to make our life better...But I want them to take a chill pill in their life and just go on a world tour and just be with each other...

I have always helped some people when they were in need.....But when I was in trouble...No I cared....This world is filled with selfish people...

I want selfless love and care from a friend...............And just roam the whole world with her doing some crazy stuff......

Guest's picture
reed

guest i want selfless love...
from what i see is that maybe you are a little selfish and maybe you should quit feeling sorry for yourself. I have been a loner in my life but i have also made some good friends too. if your life is that negative then do something about it and quit waiting for someone to do it for you. all your regret and revenge is unhealthy. the only way for you to move forward is to leave those things behind and start living today. Learn from your mistakes and use that information to make your tomorrows better. Stop wasting time living in your past...

.

Guest's picture
Guest

I began reading this and thought yeah ok this could be helpful, then as I went down the page through different comments found myself thinking that yes there are many valid points and I can see everyones position.
For me personally I have managed to get a job that I always thought I wanted only to find there is so much nonsense that goes on from above that it is practically impossible to do the job the way I would like. Too many regulations and things. I also am finding that I do not actually feel like it is that worthwhile but then there are ways maybe it could be better. But then again, maybe if I did manage to change them things I may still not be satisfied with it.
I am thinking that maybe this is not really the job for me, but then maybe it is. So what I propose to do is to see it through for another 5 months and at the same time try to consider more and more alternatives by looking at job descriptions on job hunting sites and seeing if any feel better. At the end of the day I dont think I want a job at all. I think I want to be financially worry free. Essentially my real goal in life is to win the lotto so that I no longer have to feel pressured into living this world of work. I could then use money that I had to do things that would satisfy me more like helping people. Being able to not have to worry about paying bills would give me more freedom to really find what I want. And more freedom to focus on these things. I am guessing that many other people will agree here and many will say yes, I want to win the lotto too. I have had many comments from many people saying how it would be hard living in a world where you were a lotto winner, because you would come into contact with people who had made money who would see you as just a person who did not actually achieve your wealth. I dont care what they think. I want to win. Also I have had people say it could be hard to manage a large amount of money, but if that was the case then I could find someone to help me with that and pay them enough so it would not be a problem. The thing I want more than anything in the world is to win the lotto jackpot. I love my family, and my friends and I could bring them all something that they dream of if I was to win. I hear what everyone is going to say to this, that its a dream and the chances are very slim and that everyone wants it. I can even hear the skeptics saying its just not possible and that I am wasting my time thinking of such things, I should be spending more time doing things that could achieve making money. And to that I say yes I could spend more time trying to make money, but I would be trying to make it. I have not the first idea how to make a lot of money. I have tried lots of jobs and things and doing them has not now and will not ever bring me the kind of financial worry free life I want. I have thought about business and what I could do that could result in me making millions but I just dont feel sure that any one of those paths could lead to what I want. The only way is to win. I want to be a winner. I great big winner. I want to win. I hope everyone gets this now. I really want to win. I dont want it because I think it will bring me happiness, I know it wont. It will merely bring me financial freedom. This is what I want. My happiness is there no matter what, but I dont want to spend time doing crap jobs that I am bored with after 10 weeks anymore. And I dont want to keep changing jobs all the time either, looking for something new all the time just so I can make sure my rent is paid or that I can afford my daughters school trip. I want to be presented with things to pay for and think 'is this what I want or not' and know that either decision will not cause a tonne of worry about if I can afford it.
I thank everyone here for making this even clearer to me.
I have tried writing this list as suggested and it is so helpful, the only thing that is problematic about it is that for every item I have on this list I would need to work work work work work in order to fund each thing. By the time I have finished working for each item I will be dead anyway! Some of the things which are not in need of finance to do such as writing a book, I just have not got the time to do because I have to work so much just to pay to live. The lotto win is the answer to every problem I ever encounter. If I had that I would have freedom to live.

Wish me good luck please people.

Thanks again to you all for making it clearer.
Best wishes and good luck to you all in whatever you choose in life.

Guest's picture
Aaron

I saw this video and I think this guy makes a really interesting point about our need to redefine success. Short video but it's definitely worth the watch:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvcTwohf1Zg

Guest's picture
Audrey

I'm usually not a big fan of the timed list exercise, but this was really helpful for me. I've thought about all of the things I want to do and aspire to be at one time or another, but I've never created a comprehensive list of the things I would truly regret not doing. They all fall into a few neat categories, and they're surprisingly closely related.

I'm an Activist Educator, Craftswoman, Artist, Entrepreneur, and Explorer. My life's purpose is to cultivate independence in myself and others. It's a much clearer picture of myself than I had ten minutes ago. Thanks!