The Elusive Definition of Success


There is no one definition of success.

Some value the ability to do meaningful work, while others focus on more concrete results. What is clear is the significant influence that culture has on the ideals of success and fulfillment.

One important distinction is the dichotomy between success and fulfillment. It is important to recognize that while individuals define what fulfillment means to them, society defines success. It should be acknowledged that it is possible to attain success while not fully achieving a state of complete fulfillment, and vice-versa. What feels freeing to one person can feel suffocating to another.

The pursuit of success is ingrained in our cultural DNA. In the United States, the “American Dream” has evolved to become a national ethos that promises that every person can achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. As such, the Western traditional definition of success is highly associated with wealth, power, and position.

However, for many Latin Americans, the definition of “success” is connected much more to relationships and time with family. Meanwhile, many Americans are willing to sacrifice those things for a while in order to attain greater material security. This is exemplified through a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. When asked why they weren’t married, 34% of the respondents between the ages of 25 to 34 named the primary cause as lack of financial success. In contrast, most Latin Americans measure their success by having enough income to support a comfortable lifestyle and spending plenty of time with their family even during their career. They would not be as willing to sacrifice family time initially in order to achieve greater monetary success later. An article by AtlasCorp explores the variations between the American and Brazilian work ethic. It concludes that the “time is money” concept does not apply to Brazil. A common phrase used to describe this difference is “Brazilians work to live, while Americans live to work.” This elucidates the distinctions between Brazilian and American mindsets relating toward their professional lives. Americans often view their jobs and careers as a toil that consumes their everyday life, while Brazilians consciously choose to strike a balance with clear limits.

This is further shown through a 2014 study in which researchers discovered that Americans now work 47 hours a week on average—one of the highest in the world. What’s interesting is, despite diligently committing to these long hours at work, 53% of Americans are still unhappy with their profession, meaning that a culture’s definition of success and individual fulfilment can be mutually exclusive.

It should be acknowledged that often these long hours are necessary for individuals to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. This might explain the prioritization of financial affluence or security over happiness and fulfillment, which are often seen to have a sacrificial role in the pursuit of success.

This connects to a famous quote by Thomas Merton: “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Dedication to the pursuit of a society’s conventional definition of success often does not lead to the state of complete fulfillment.

This commitment to the corporate “rat race” as a means of success is not just an American cultural attribute. In Chinese culture, success is also closely tied to materialism. This can be seen when analyzing Chinese Chengyu, a type of traditional wisdom from ancient Chinese people that contains deep insights into human life. One famous idiom translates to “fail to sleep and forget to eat.” While this saying does emphasize hard work when applied to daily life, it can lead to individuals neglecting a proper work-life balance. An estimated four million people work overtime in China.

Additionally, for many Chinese youth, their ideas about success are limited to conventional definitions and driven by the need to make their parents proud. Many internalize their parents’ desire for financial security and equate success with gaining professional prestige. This emphasis on future success is exemplified through the Chinese maxim of “wang zi cheng long ” (expecting the son to become dragon); the dragon represents authority and dominance in Chinese culture.

In China, there is also a clear prioritization of medical based professions as these are seen to be more valuable and lucrative than careers in a creative or an entrepreneurial field. This is demonstrated by the Chinese government’s 2017 plan to turn 42 universities into “world class” science and technology institutions. The plan clearly speaks to the implicit bias and preference placed on these programs.

However, even in societies that value a work-life balance, definitions of success can still be highly restrictive. For example, Indian culture is an amalgamation of numerous traditions, beliefs, and practices. Still, it is based on a strict social hierarchy and is highly family-centric. It is very important for Indians to strike the right balance between their career and their home. This is illustrated by statistics that show that around 30% of Indians would rather achieve social success than professional success, compared to the global average of 22%. When asked about the work life balance, 57% picked it as a principal indicator of success. Money and property may define one’s success in the Indian society, but they are not the only things that make an Indian successful.

It is undeniable that culture molds our perspectives on how to achieve success. In the United States, there is a focus on materialistic gain, whereas Indian society centers on maintaining a presumably perfect nuclear family unit. Similarly, in China, these societal expectations largely stem from parental pressures. As a result, people who don’t derive fulfillment from these ideals can instead become stuck on a treadmill of life, steadily tracking along an upward career trajectory to achieve society’s view of success but often finding no fulfillment.

I believe that when searching for fulfillment, people should look to isolate themselves from societal expectations and definitions of success and instead focus on their individual wishes. As a grade 12 student currently entering the university application process, I am confronted with the challenge of establishing this dichotomous relationship between my own preferences and inclinations versus the influences of my surroundings, which often latently dictate my actions. I have had to distance myself from the rankings, my parents’ opinion, and the judgment of others in order to kickstart the true path to my fulfillment. As such, from my personal experience, I can definitively say that liberating ourselves from the confines of presumed ideals of success can elucidate our own sincere desires and passions.

As famously stated by Deepak Chopra, “Just as light brightens darkness, discovering inner fulfillment can eliminate any disorder or discomfort. This is truly the key to creating balance and harmony in everything you do.” This demonstrates that true success and fulfillment can be found on one singular path and that the journey to the complete attainment of these three concepts is a truly gratifying process.


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Ameena Naqvi is in the 12th grade at White Oaks Secondary School in Toronto, Canada. Her hobbies include drawing, playing the flute, and reading. She has a passion for music and writing.