Failure is defined as an absence or lack of success. This is a pretty general purpose definition. It allows us to personally define success so we can know whether or not we have failed. The main problem here is that most of us aren’t great at defining success. This could leave us feeling like failures when in fact we’re actually the opposite. Working and living like this doesn’t honor or respect the effort we put into our lives. It’s time to redefine.
What definition of success and failure do you have currently? Some of us won’t define either for ourselves. Instead, we’ll let the shape of them be decided by the people and world around us. We’ll be swayed by whoever influences us most, whether that’s our boss, best friend or a social media star we’ll never meet. This means that whenever we don’t match up to their standards we’re failing and when we do we’re succeeding. Others may have an impossibly narrow, and as a result limiting, definition of success. Living with that definition leaves them almost certainly destined to fail. That’s a hard way to live. And then there is the group of people who never define success and failure meaning they don’t know when they’re doing either. That will make everything feel like an aimless slog.
There is no need to categorize everything as a success or a failure, but when it is appropriate there is no right or wrong way to define these states. It’s just that some definitions (or lack of) do more harm than good. So having said that, what definition could offer us the most benefit? It’s possible that basing the states of success and failure on values might just do it.
Success, noun. The state of living and working according to our values
Failure, noun. The state of living and working in a way that isn’t aligned with our values
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How would this reframe make previous so-called failures and successes look?
That job interview or promotion you didn’t get may be seen as a successful process because of the way you worked towards it and the authenticity and boldness you represented yourself with. That sting at not getting the job or promotion is minimized by the fact that you showed up for yourself and gave it everything you could. Your boss praising you because you’re working night and day to deliver that piece of work which was too big to begin with? Maybe more of a failure than you think. You failed to push back against your boss for expecting you to deliver the impossible. You’re exhausted and missing your family who barely see you. You compromised your values around working with structure and balance for approval. It’s a high price to pay and the discomfort felt due to being misaligned with your values highlights this.
Why is redefining in this way helpful? I’ve previously written about the importance and benefit of knowing your values. Defining success and failure based on them goes one step further. It makes you aware of how you are determining powerful states in your life. Whether we fail or succeed we’re most likely going to have a strong, and sometimes lasting, reaction to these states. Those reactions might affect us physically and emotionally, they may influence how we see ourselves and the world around us. They could also sway decisions or choices we go on to make. This means our reactions to success and failure have an impact, small and big, on us and our lives making the control we have over whether we succeed or fail essential.
Defining success around values gives you this control. It puts you, not your boss or the world, in control of whether you succeed or fail. It allows you to work towards success in an authentic, flexible and tangible way. Of course you may not be able to live and work in a way that aligns to your values all of the time but when you can’t at least you’ll know you tried to. This definiton may also allow for you to find success in situations where traditionally failure was the only option. The importance of this? Hard work, effort and whatever else you contributed won’t go unnoticed, masked by the usual cloud and tarnish failure brings with it.
The feedback we get from succeeding and failing (no matter how much it stings) is valuable. It allows us to know when we’re heading in the right direction and when we need to make adjustments. Redefining success and failure to a values-based definition isn’t about minimizing failure and maximizing success. It also isn’t about defining everything in terms of these two things. When thinking in these terms is helpful, however, this redefinition offers us more flexibility in how we view highly influential states in our work and life. It gives us the opportunity to lower the bar of perfection, step away from the influence of the world and people around us and find success in an important skill; following our values. So next time you’re feeling the sinking sting of failure please ask yourself whether you followed your values. You might just find that looking at things through this lens highlights some success you might have otherwise missed.