How Do You Measure Success?

Wealth, job title, and happiness are some of the most common measures of success. It’s important to measure success the right way because it informs how you spend your time and effort. If you don’t measure success in terms of what’s truly important to you, you can’t work towards getting there.

Peter Drucker, one of the great management theorists, stated this idea more succinctly:

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

However, it’s hard to do define success. Cognitive biases and external pressures get in the way of people realizing what they actually want in life. Here are six strategies that have helped me define success and work towards achieving meaningful goals.

1. Discover your values

Highly motivated people often focus too much on execution without spending enough time to think about what to execute in the first place. Being able to achieve a success metric is hard, but knowing which metric to achieve is important.

“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

Discover what you value and choose your own metrics for success. If you don’t choose for yourself, you’ll end up flowing with the current of the culture around you, which may or may not be fulfilling for you.

Once you choose your metric, you might realize that you’re already “successful.” Or you might realize that you’re spending your time and energy working towards a goal that isn’t in line with your values.

Work towards your own metrics for success and don’t let “FOMO” make you feel like a failure because you’re not meeting someone else’s metrics for success. Your friend Billy might have all the money in the world, but if money is not how you measure success, don’t worry about Billy.

2. Compare yourself only to yourself

We have a tendency to measure our success in comparison to our peers. If your friend Ashely is making more money than you, you might feel like a failure.

Social comparison bias is a cognitive bias that explains that our judgments are often influenced by comparisons to other people. A benchmark makes it easier to make a judgment, but it will not necessarily be a more accurate judgment.

John Wooden, one of the of the most successful basketball coaches of all-time, took a different approach to measuring success. “Don’t measure yourself by what you’ve accomplished, but rather by what you should have accomplished with your abilities,” he wrote in his book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. Instead of measuring success in comparison to others, he focused on something that was within his control:

“True success is attained only through the satisfaction of knowing you did everything within the limits of your ability to become the very best that you are capable of being.”

Wooden’s approach differs from what you read in many motivational self-help books. Instead of simply “thinking big,” he preferred to keep expectations in line with reality:

“We should keep our dreams within the realm of possibility — difficult but possible — and make every effort to achieve them.”

If your success metrics are too far beyond what’s realistically achievable, you will inevitably be disappointed. If you maintain reasonable expectations and put in the work, you might just realize how successful you already are.

3. Measure what’s hard to measure

It’s easy to measure financial success. You can see a number in your bank account and compare it to others’ bank accounts.

It’s easy to manage for financial success simply because it’s easier to measure.

Most people would consider Elon Musk to be highly successful. You can see his success right in front of you. He has companies, money, rockets, and cars. But it’s hard to see what’s going on in his head. In a Tweet in July 2017, Musk talked about the unrelenting stress that comes with his line of work:  

how do you measure success

It’s hard to measure many of the things that I care most about: mental and physical health, relationships, freedom, and fulfillment. Don’t forget to incorporate some qualitative analysis into how you measure success.

4. Measure results over the long-term

Success doesn’t happen overnight. It usually takes a lot of failures to get there.

The Founder of Instacart, Apoorva Mehta, had 20 failed startups before Instacart. With each failed startup, he probably improved his skillsets, made some contacts, and learned about what customers want. Now he’s running one of Silicon Valley’s fastest growing startups.

Don’t just measure immediate tangible results to define success. Consider what you’ve learned and how it will help you achieve success in the future.

Opportunities that take time to deliver results can be great opportunities because many people crave immediate results. SEO is a great example of such an opportunity. It can take months to start seeing results, which compels many companies to favor paid advertising. However, once SEO starts working, you can achieve consistent and profitable growth.

Don’t define yourself solely by your current circumstances. Consider who you are becoming.

5. Measure outcomes, not proxies

It’s easy to measure proxies for success. Secondary metrics, such as the number of Twitter followers you have, might be a proxy for marketing success, but Twitter followers don’t always translate to business results. Processes, such as sharing five articles per day on Twitter, might help you grow your follower count, but not necessarily.

In Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos’ 2016 Letter to Shareholders, he explained how running surveys can become a proxy for actually knowing what your customers want and delivering it to them:

“Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing.”

The number of books you read is probably a poor proxy for learning. In order to learn, you need to read the right books and retain what you learn. In order for learning to help you achieve success, you need to put what you learn into practice.

Do what will help you achieve success. Measure success in terms of the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.

6. Learn and iterate

Blockbuster measured success based on profits from in-store DVD rentals. Netflix measured success based on subscriptions for streaming movies on the Internet. DVD rentals were yesterday’s metric for success. Streaming subscriptions is today’s metric for success. You know who won that battle.

Dynamic inconsistency is a situation where the best plan for the future is not optimal when that future period arrives. We live in a fast-paced world that’s constantly changing. And as humans, we’re always learning and growing, too.

As you get older, your values will likely change. You will gain experience and learn what’s most important to you. When I was younger, job titles and salaries were my metrics for success. Now, the way I measure success is far more robust. I consider my health, relationships and personal freedom.

Don’t be afraid to change how you measure success as you change as a person.