The best definition of success I could find on Google is ‘the meeting of an aim or purpose‘.
I consider this the best definition because it doesn’t assume what constitutes success other than the achievement of a goal. The goal could be money, fame, love, peace of mind, love for your job or anything else under the sun.
Now most people have a general idea of how success should look or feel like. I did a quick survey in my group of friends and they came back with the following answers (yes, I have exactly three friends):
Friend 1: Enough money to financially support a family and buy treats for close friends and relatives
Friend 2: Ability and freedom to determine one’s own fate and the fates of loved ones
Friend 3: Freedom from worrying about details and the ability to do things spontaneously
In short, what all three of them want enough of to consider themselves successful are money and time. Money will ensure a level of autonomy and independence when it comes to obtaining comfort, security, education and happiness. Time will allow for spontaneity and the freedom for non-work-related pursuits.
The next logical question is…
How much is enough?
How much money is enough? RM 5k a month? RM 20k? RM 30k? Should it come in a fixed amount every month or should he get one huge sum at the end of every year, which will be carefully managed for the rest of the year? Or should it come from various sources at different times, adding up to the same amount? Active or passive income? Does the money have to be in liquid form or can it be stored in investments like real estate and stocks? Would capital appreciation count as income, even if it isn’t liquidised or does it have to be in the form of cash in his hands?
What about time? Is it 24 hours of free time every day? Is it 3 months off work every year? Or would 52 undisturbed weekends suffice? Or should it come in the form of pure flexibility where one could work any time of the day as long as the results are delivered by a certain time?
For Friend 1, he specifically mentioned that he wants enough to financially support his (future) family and have enough to keep his friends and relatives happy. I’m sure it’s just something he mentioned offhandedly to a casual question from me. But let’s take this answer seriously for the sake of analysis, especially because I’m sure that what he wants is very similar to what a lot of other people want as well.
When you add other people as part of the equation in determining your success, it becomes more tricky.
Assuming my friend becomes the breadwinner of the family, his financial responsibilities to his family will be numerous. While ‘financially supporting the family’ sounds like a simple enough thing, especially since so many people are already doing it, the list of responsibilities can be endless if you don’t properly draw your boundaries.
Some things can be quite clear cut. Rent, car installment, health insurance, children’s education, groceries, utility bills etc.
But what about the not so typical financial obligations? What if your spouse’s not-so-well-off parents need financial support for the rest of their lives? How about building a handicap-accessible home for your grandma? What if your siblings need tuition money? What if your best friend were to fall into hard times and need to borrow a huge amount of money from you which he could only pay after 5 years? What then?
On top of that, my friend included happiness in his definition of success. But happiness is a vague, fickle thing, even more so when it is of someone who isn’t you. How can you make someone else happy? What if despite your best efforts, this person you care about is hell-bent on self-destruction? Would you consider yourself a failure if this person is not happy?
The reason I’m asking all these questions is not to say what you should or should not do or pay for.
I am merely demonstrating a point that having a vague definition of success can be your downfall.
If you pride yourself as a breadwinner, when life in all its bitchiness throws shitloads of responsibilities your way, you might not be able to juggle all of them one day. If you never took the time to clearly state what your responsibilities are, it’s inevitable that every single thing that comes your way will feel like your responsibility. The day that you let down one of your responsibilities, it will make you feel like a failure.
The difference between wallowing in self-blame and picking yourself up is in the details.
Just because you feel like a failure does not make you one.
Failing simply means not meeting a goal. If your goal isn’t clearly defined, how can you possibly consider yourself a success or a failure?
The details of success
I want the same things as most people. Enough money and enough time to be happy.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), my family loves to play devil’s advocate. So here are the steps I’ve come up with in order to clearly define my version of success.
Step 1: Pinpoint every vague statement I see in my definition of success.
Vague statement 1: Enough money.
Vague statement 2: Enough time.
Vague statement 3: Be happy.
Step 2: Get to the bottom of what I really want.
Does this sound like another painful, tedious process of self-searching exercise? Ya damn right.
Step 2.1: How much money is enough money?
I calculated my daily expenses and realised that I don’t really need that much to get by. Even after including the potential costs of nice things to have, it didn’t go up by much. For instance, I am not into branded goods and eating out at expensive places. I don’t have expensive friends to impress. I am also not into big houses or nice cars. I am however into travelling which can be expensive but I found out that travelling too often can be tiring. Four times a year would be the maximum amount I can tolerate.
i) The amount of money I need to have in order to consider myself successful is RM 5,000 a month. Doesn’t sound like much, right? So many people in Kuala Lumpur earn multiples of this.
ii) But my RM 5,000 a month has to be in the form of passive income. That means by doing absolutely nothing at all, I want RM 5,000 to just appear in my bank account. If I have to trade my precious time to get RM 5,000 a month, I don’t consider myself successful. If it were to come from rent, royalty payment, dividend stocks, advertisements, I don’t mind at all. I’m not picky about that.
iii) My RM 5,000 a month also needs to be a net amount of disposable income. This means that after deducting commitments like taxes, loan installments, bills and whatnots, I will still have a clean RM 5,000 to spend on anything I want. If I end up not spending them, I can reinvest the money and grow my wealth.
iv) My RM 5,000 a month can come from anywhere legal except from a source that diminishes my principal savings. That means if I have a million in savings, there is no way I’m touching that. I will however have no qualms about spending the dividends made from investing that RM 1 million in dividend stocks. Or I could buy a nice apartment with my savings, rent it out and spend the rent money. That way, my principal amount of RM 1 million can only increase, not decrease. I must feel like the source of my wealth is protected.
v) My RM 5,000 must be in liquid form. That means it is immediately accessible like cash and not tied up in an asset. It means I don’t have to wait 3 months for the sale of a house to conclude before I can get my hands on the money. Real estate doesn’t count. Fixed deposits don’t count. Any money that is tied up in the process of generating more money does not count.
vi) This RM 5,000 must not come from someone else’s goodwill. If for some reason someone decides to give me RM 5,000 every month for the rest of my life, I will not consider this as part of my reliable source of income. This is because people are unpredictable and I wish to be free of the uncertainty of people’s emotions, as far as money goes. While my ventures and investments are also susceptible to changes, I have more faith in my own capabilities than other people’s feelings for me. Does this mean if I were to get married and my husband were to give me RM5,000 every month, I wouldn’t take that into account? You’re right, I wouldn’t. I’ll take the money, to be sure. I simply won’t consider myself successful just because my husband wants to give me money. Marriages fall apart. I find it prudent to assume the worst case scenario when it comes to money matters so I can better take care of myself and potentially my offspring.
So there you have it, my conditions to be considered successful on the financial side. RM 5,000 a month is actually an outdated estimation. I have a new one now which I am constantly testing and checking for flaws. It is important to note that the notion of success changes based on which part of your life you’re at. I have different amounts I need for being a single woman and a woman with children, for example.
Step 2.2: How much time is enough time?
I blame my dad for this, but I feel like getting an allergic reaction every time I think about how my hard work is making someone else richer at the expense of my time. Sure, I’m getting things like experience and in the short run, this is a wonderful arrangement. In the long run? Not so much. Trading time for money is not a good deal. It’s just not. I don’t mind making less money as long as my independence is preserved.
i) I want 24 hours a day to be spent on my terms, every day. There are two things that humans get for free at birth. Health and time. Because we get them for free and don’t have to work for them, we don’t appreciate them enough. This is why we see people not taking care of their bodies and getting sick and people wasting time. To me, trading time for money is a waste of time. I want to use time to get more than just money. I want money, purpose, family, love, happiness and much more. I believe this is possible. I don’t believe this is possible in a 9-5 job.
ii) I must have the flexibility to shift work around to make time for what matters. If I need to take a two-month holiday, I can work doubly hard now to produce enough buffer to make time for that holiday. This is why it’s important for me to have a job that I can plan ahead.
iii) I can work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection and not be stuck to a physical office in one location. I can save time on commute and carry out my chores when there is no one around like going to the post office, bank and supermarket.
I do think that I need to put so much more thought when it comes to time. But so far, this is all I have. If you know of other aspects of time I should think of, drop a comment, I’ll appreciate it loads and we can learn more together 🙂
Step 2.3: What does happiness mean?
Happiness to me are simple things, but by no means easy to maintain.
i) Be at peace with God. I hardly think I am a religious person, but there was a pretty special moment a few years ago where I shed all pretense of trying to be ‘the perfect Muslim before talking to God’ and turned to God in all my hypocrisy, flaws and imperfections. It was the best thing I ever did.
ii) Have a close relationship with my family. No matter how annoying or irritating or unfair, I have a wonderful family. If there’s anyone worth sacrificing my ego for, it is my family.
iii) Have a close relationship with my friends. I used to count the number of friends I have. Nowadays I just appreciate the ones I’m close to. Friends come and go but the ones who stay for a long time need special attention. When the time comes for them to leave, I try to make sure we part with grace and not burn any bridges.
iv) Be in good health. The thought came to me as I covered my face in Korean skincare and makeup. How could I possibly cover up the symptoms of the rot that had taken hold inside my body? It didn’t feel right, so instead of covering up my acnes and dark circles with makeup, I exercised, ate better things and slept more. Now I don’t wear makeup anymore and I have more energy to do all the things I want to do. Life is just better when your body is not rotting from the inside. The slimmer body is a bonus.
v) Have a job that I’m good at which benefits people. There are several jobs that meet these two criteria but when I add my requirements for time and money, my only option is to create my own job. Here we are.
vi) Financial security. Money may not buy happiness, but it makes finding happiness damn easy. I like to make life easy. Money also provides independence and the strength to protect myself and to help others.
vii) Liking myself. Above all, I need to feel like I want to befriend myself. And right now, I really like myself.
When all of the above are met, I consider myself a successfully happy person.
Success is a highly relative thing. At the surface, it seems that everyone wants the same thing. Money, time, love, recognition. But dig deeper and you will see how wildly different people are. If you want to be successful, you must clearly state what success means to you. If you don’t, you might work yourself to death, all the while being miserable and thinking, “Why am I not successful?”.
What’s worse, no matter what you achieve, you might start comparing yourself to other people you deem more successful. The basis for comparison is endless. Someone will always be better at something, have nicer things, better friends, more money, amazing kids etc.
When you consider what your definition of success looks like, keep other people out of it. It doesn’t matter how wildly successful you think Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg is. You are not them and they are not you. Be honest with your values, fears and motivations and pinpoint what exactly matters to you. If your definition of success has nothing to do with money and everything to do with raising five well-rounded children, then so be it. If I were to compare my website to every self-improvement and personal finance website I come across, I’d be rooted to the spot with self-loathing and not be able to move forward. It’s completely subpar now, I know, but I only need to focus on getting better than yesterday.
Meeting your goals and considering yourself successful does not mean that you don’t have to move forward and improve yourself anymore. Rather, it simply means that you are giving yourself the validation that you need before you move on to better things, should you choose to. After all, life is too short for you to sleepwalk through it, idly wondering if you’ve done something worth being proud of. Find out for sure by setting those standards yourself. Only you can do it for yourself.