Define Success to Create Success, Starting Now

“What matters is the value we've created in our lives, the people we've made happy, and how much we've grown as people.” ~Daisaku Ikeda

Ahhh success! It sounds so good. We all want it, but are you brave enough to define what success means to you and go for it?

Society conditions us to define success as being the best, attaining prosperity, making a lot money, or having a fancy CEO title.

I thought I had “success” ten years ago where I spent five years working on Wall Street at Credit Suisse, an investment banking firm in New York City. I started as an associate on the Corporate Bond Sales desk and was promoted to a Vice President.

I worked at the firm as a summer intern between my first and second years of business school and received a full-time offer. I remember being very hesitant about taking the job because I knew it wasn’t my passion, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.

It was exciting when I first stepped on the trading desk—tons of energy, noise, and people sitting less than three feet away from me on both sides. In an unexpected way, the noise faded into the background and I became used to it.

I enjoyed the job at first and how fast paced it was, but after a few years, I realized that I was not engaged on this path. I believed that there was something more for me.

It was confusing because I had a good salary, good title, and a good life, but it wasn’t fulfilling.  Many thought I was “successful” by the traditional definition, but I did not feel like I was on my true path and making a difference.

I stayed in finance for a while hoping my feelings about the role would change—they didn’t! Although I’m interested in the markets, I’m not passionate about them. I wanted to read personal development books in my free time, rather than Barron’s and Business Week.

The truth was finance, although a great path for some, wasn’t my path. This took me a while to admit. It’s powerful to face the truth! The job was draining my energy, and after a few years, I wasn’t excited to start my day.

Often the hardest thing to do is to walk away from something that is good for others but not great for you.

When I was 40 years old, I made a tough decision to change my life and leave the finance world for real. I opted for a much more fulfilling life as a Business/Life Coach, Speaker, and Author. I had to take a step into the unknown and create another career and life that felt authentic.

I love what I do now because I get to read and write about things that inspire me and help others make a difference in their life. I feel like I am making a positive contribution to the world and that makes me happy!

I only share that I was 40 because people often convince themselves that it’s too late to make a change after a certain age. It got to the point where I couldn’t stand one more day in a job that drained my energy and soul rather than inspired and refueled me.

Yes, I had some financial security in the short term, but I still needed to reinvent my life. The most important factor was that I had confidence in myself.

I believe age is just a number. Dara Torres, at the age of 41, earned a spot on the United States Olympic Swim Team and won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She proved her words that “the water doesn’t know your age…[goals] may be hard to achieve, but your dreams can’t stop because you’ve hit a certain age.”

She swam her fastest race ever in the 50-meter freestyle and set a new American record. As a result, she redefined what’s possible and changed the way we look at age.

Options are available to all of us. It’s just a matter of being honest, gaining clarity, and taking action.

Be daring—tell me what success means to you? Is it being the CEO, starting your own company, being financial independent, volunteering and helping others, having good friends, carving out time for your favorite hobby such as photography, being in shape, loving yourself, or spending time reading to your children?

I’ve met a lot of people who've achieved “success” but feel unfulfilled and unclear on what they believe it means to succeed.

True success is based on our personal set of beliefs, our values, and the choices we make throughout our lives. As our values and ideas shift, our definitions of success will change, as well.

Success is dynamic.

Our work is to make sure our current definition of success is aligned with the goals we pursue and the choices we make. Only some of us will take this step, but it’s available to all. 

One person may define success as being married, working for a good company, and having savings in the bank, and someone else by being healthy, making a difference, or making yourself a priority. It’s is a personal decision.

For me, success is about making a positive contribution to the world and sharing my best self.

It’s not about the $ signs. Opportunities emerged when I realized success is internal rather than about externals.

Three thoughts to help explore success:

1. Clarify what success means to you.

Go ahead—be brave, bold, and most importantly be honest with yourself. Let’s be clear, only you define what is and isn’t possible—not someone else. If we were at a dinner party and everyone had to share how they define success, what would you say?

2. Pursue goals that are both important and priorities in your life.

In his book, Open, one of the world’s greatest tennis players, Andre Agassi, talks about the first time he earned the No. 1 ranking in the world. He said that he felt empty and unfulfilled. It wasn’t until Agassi won the French Open and put his tennis earnings toward building charter schools for underprivileged children and helping others that he felt a deeper sense of fulfillment (and he met his wife Stefanie Graf).

The takeaway is that being No. 1 may equate to external success but it does not necessarily equate to fulfillment. Do your goals add meaning to your life?

3. Believe that you can achieve success (or top 1% moments) from any starting place in life.

I left a successful finance career late in life and started a new career when I was 40. I completely turned my world around and moved from New York City to Santa Monica, California and had to build both a business and a new community of friends. It’s never too late to make a positive decision and turn your ideas into action.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” What would you love to achieve in your life?

When you are ready to accept nothing less than walking on your true path to success, you will have a renewed sense of empowerment, and you will start to see new opportunities.

TOP 1% BOTTOM LINE: Success is not defined by what society or others think is right for you but by what makes you feel whole and adds meaning to your life. It’s never a comparison. Only you know what makes you smile and leaves you with a greater sense of fulfillment.

There are many definitions for success. It’s time to find yours.

Photo by JoeLodge

About Alissa Finerman

Alissa is a Business/Life Coach, speaker, and author of “Living in Your Top 1%.” She works with individuals and organizations to get meaningful results. Alissa has an MBA from the Wharton School and a BA from UC Berkeley. To learn about coaching with Alissa and to take the Living in Your Top 1% quiz, please visit or Alissa’s Facebook page.

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  • Vanessa

    Steve jobs said it best in his commencement speech delivered at Stanford in 2005: “you’re work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to do what you love. If you haven’t found it yet keep looking. Don’t settle.”

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  • James

    Easy to say that when you have the resources to change careers. For those of us who are stucked in lower than mediocre jobs just for survival is a very different story.

  • Sarah Fertig

    I don’t know what kind of work you’re in, but personally, I’ve really enjoyed past stints as a supermarket stocker, gas station cashier and dishwasher.  I like that when I punch out, I’m done – no reports to file, no progress reports to write!  And of course I really liked the human interaction – there’s no equalizer quite like a gas station, everyone will end up going to one sooner or later.  I hope you find something to enjoy about your job if you aren’t in a place right now to change jobs.

  • Kate Louw

    Hello Alissa – a saying I found just before I read your post: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – C.S. Lewis
    I’m in the process of a exit strategy in my role at the moment – I feel a slight guilty tug when I’m asked for my views going forward (I’ve not resigned as yet but will do in November) but in my heart my success is being true to myself. Your post was spot on. Thank you. xx

  • Alissa

    Thanks for taking the time to read my post and share your thoughts, very much appreciated.
    Vanessa, I love the quote you shared – his commencement speech is one of the most inspiring I’ve heard!
    Kate, great quote. I completely agree that success is connected with being true to yourself. Good luck in the transition!
    There’s always a reason why something can’t be done…whether it’s money, time, resources, knowledge, or mindset. I think it’s time to focus on what we can do! People who create redefine challenges to see what’s possible.

  • James, please allow me my two cents. Many people care about your situation and that of countless others. If they didn’t, there would be no websites like TinyBuddha.

    While many times post authors seemingly come from far better places than my own, I am here because I am searching, and very often find answers to my questions. It makes little difference where they come from.

    The fact that you are here tells me that you too are searching. That is always a change for the better, in and of itself. You’re already on the path to becoming unstuck. With patience and the asking of many questions you’ll someday live the answers.

    Or you could do what I do, stuck, unstuck, stuck, unstuck…

    I in no way mean to minimize your predicament, and sincerely hope that you find the means to live the life that you want. Look for the positive in everything. In the post you replied to, in every day of your life, everywhere that you go. It is always there. Our task is to find it and build on it.

    Best of luck to you.

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  • My friend and I are interested the very same thing, and approaching 40 as well.  How did you make the transition and become a life coach?  We are wondering what our next step should be.  

  • I believe age is just a number. Thank you!

  • jc

    James, I must say that I am inclined to agree with you….until I remember that I have been conditioned to believe money can grant or deny me permission to pursue my dreams. It is difficult to ignore the panic and frustration instilled by a pile of bills and a meager paycheck after another uninspiring day on the job. I still have to make a concentrated effort to disagree with that conditioning because it is reinforced on a daily basis by so much of our cultural environment. 
    But a person’s passion is an infinite resource.

    In my experience and observation, living and honoring one’s passion can create unpredictable resources and inexplicably open the doors toward success. It has always been my fear that this will not be so, that I will not be able to (or don’t want to) handle the potential repercussions of leaving the misery or boredom that I have already learned how to endure. I may fear the lack of money, and avoid taking meaningful risks for fear of financial consequences, but it costs so much more to live in poverty of the soul.  

  • Alissa

    Hi there, that’s exciting that you are thinking about becoming a coach…I made my transition by being honest with myself, leaving my job, and signing up for a coaching program at NYU followed by 2 other programs..I read a ton of material/books….so lots of next step options…one good one would be to start exploring coaching programs and if any of them resonate with you, and start reading material by coaches you like…best of luck, Alissa

  • Vadharm

    Thanks Alissa for such a thought provoking blog where u have brought a clear difference between Success and true happiness with the help of ur  example….It helped me to solve the conflicts going in my mind and in realizing the need to clarify my ambitions…. 

  • Vadharm

    Ya i comletely agree with u James and moreover sometimes many people(family ) is dependent on you.Then it raise a question whether to go for personal aims and take risks or just stick to ur current situation and be stable.

  • Vadharm

    Jc , ur words truly resemle my thoughts and the situation.

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  • i completely hear you – i’m walking away from one of the banks as well right now as i type. i realized that i based my happiness on what others define as success. but to my own detriment in health. stress induced depression and other physical illness. time to pull the plug. thanks for sharing the story!

  • disqus_elDiJsiI0h

    What a great article. It has really made an impact on me who is trying to find better horizons to experience success. . .