Over a Beer: How do you define success?

How do you define "success" in your own life? What makes a person successful? There are no easy answers to be found in this Over a Beer column.

Racer: Nino Schurter. Photo: Armin M. Küstenbrück / Scott Sports

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

I have a question for you today: How do you define success in your own life? If you read nothing else in this column, I still invite you to scroll down to the comments section below and share your definition of success.

This is a question that I’ve been grappling with lately because, while perhaps there are societal norms of what makes a person “successful,” I think that we can each individually choose how we evaluate success in our own lives. We can create our own definition of success that is determined by ourselves, and ourselves alone.

A Google search for the term “successful” provides what I consider to be two very different definitions, which show the difficulty we face in defining this word for ourselves in 2017. One of the definitions is, “having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction,” which succinctly summarizes what success means to many Westerners around the world. Synonyms provided with this definition include “prosperous,” “affluent,” “wealthy,” and “rich.”

But Google’s other definition could be seen to diverge widely from the culture’s definition. Google also defines “successful” as “accomplishing an aim or purpose.”

Now, if your aim or purpose is to achieve popularity, profit, or distinction, then those two things align. But what if you have a different aim or purpose in your life?

Before we go on, I want to mention that I don’t think popularity, profit, or distinction are inherently bad goals. While we have no end of examples in America today of corrupt people who have achieved those goals, I’d like to hope that corruption and affluence aren’t inextricably bound together—the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation standing as evidence.

But as a teenager trying to decide what college I would go to (and then taking over two years to finally start attending an accredited university), I had a realization at the age of 17 that, based on what I wanted from life, I would probably never be a rich man. And when that realization hits—at least, for the portion of the 99% who are honest with themselves—the question then becomes, “how else do I define success in my own life?”

One Example

Dual Slalom race at the Sea Otter Classic. Photo courtesy Sea Otter

One way that some people attempt to find success is be becoming the best at something. In the world of mountain biking, the easiest example to look at is racing. Even if 99% of the general population doesn’t race mountain bikes and doesn’t care about mountain biking, for those who win, they are the best at what they do. It might be a small subculture of the world at large, but if you’re the best enduro racer in the world, hey, you’re still the best.

I think this desire to be the best at something—anything—is part of what drives age group racers. Most 40+-year-olds who race can’t compete with the best in the world, but hey, if they are the best in their age group, then they’re still the best at something.

It’s been said that whether or not you win a race is completely dependent on who doesn’t show up to the race. So if you’re an age group racer and you’re winning your XC Masters 45-49 Cat 1 race series in Wisconsin, how does that compare to the rest of the Midwest? The rest of the nation? But hey, you’re still the best 45-49-year-old cross country racer in Wisconsin.

The Real Question

The point is that if we try hard enough and narrow the category sufficiently, we can all be the best at something—even if it’s the best 60+-year-old downhill racer in the state of Florida.

The question then becomes: “is that person successful because they chose to define success in this way and they achieved their goal, or is that ridiculous because who races downhill in Florida anyway?”

I don’t have a clear answer to that question. If you’ve made it past the first prompt for comments, feel free to scroll down and leave another comment with your thoughts, below.

Is one person’s version of success better than another?

Racer: Nino Schurter. Photo: Armin M. Küstenbrück / Scott Sports

Let’s say that one person decides that they want to be the best 45-49-year-old XC racer in Wisconsin. Another person wants to be a millionaire by the time they’re 30. Another wants to write the next great American novel. A fourth wants to feed starving children in Africa.

Is there a scale by which we can decide that one person’s definition of success is better than another?

The philosopher Jim Holt wrote,

“Suppose you are torn between dedicating your life to art (say, by becoming a concert pianist) or to helping others (say, by going to medical school and joining Doctors Without Borders). How do you decide? There is no common currency in which artistic creation and moral goodness might be compared; these are but two of a plurality of incommensurable values that can be realized in a human life.”

So how do we pass judgment? Do we even have any right to pass judgment?

At the very least, it seems that we must make decisions in our own lives about how we define success, and what values or goals we choose to realize with our limited time on this planet.

All of which brings me back to my initial question: “How do you define success in your own life?” If you haven’t yet, please be sure to share your thoughts!