A few years ago, I was part of a panel of supposedly successful people speaking to a room packed with about a thousand college seniors.
Our topic: how to be successful.
When it was my turn, I asked the students: “How many of you want to be successful?”
Every hand in the room shot up.
I then asked: “Who can tell me what success is?”
Not a single hand in the room was raised.
“If you don’t know what success is,” I asked the students, “then how are you going to get there?”
This is the dilemma facing many people I meet today.
They desperately want to be “successful.”
But when you ask them what that would mean, they either can’t give you a definitive answer, or they say it would be becoming a millionaire.
They define success by how much money they have because that’s how the world keeps score.
But does becoming a millionaire really make you successful?
If you won the lottery or inherited the money, you are a millionaire – but are you really a success?
If you have to do something unethical or illegal to make that much money, are you really a success?
If you work marathon days at a job that makes you miserable – same question.
That’s why early in my career, I thought about what success meant to me – not what others thought success is.
And I came up with this definition: Success is doing what I want to do … when I want to do it … with the people I want to work with … and getting paid very, very well for it.
I don’t claim this is a perfect definition for success. And it may not work for you. But it works for me and many others I have shared it with in my books and lectures.
Let’s break down this definition of success piece by piece….
“Success is doing what I want to do.”
To me, 90% of the secret of enjoying life is having a job or business you love … one you’re so excited and enthusiastic about, you jump out of bed every morning eager to get to your office and start the day.
After all, you spend more than half your waking hours working. If you don’t like work – and millions of people don’t – then your days will seem to drag on almost forever. It’s close to torture.
Now, the mistake people make is to believe the old saying, “Pursue your passion and the money will follow.”
There are plenty of things people are passionate about (e.g., 18th century Peruvian poetry) that may be fun and interesting but have close to zero money-making potential.
The trick is to pursue an interest of yours (e.g., restoring classic cars) that people will pay for.
Aristotle said words to the effect that wherein your passion intersects with the needs of the public, therein lies your vocation.
Next, success is doing what you love “when I want to do it.”
This is why 9-to-5 employment was not for me: I resented being told what to do and when to do it.
I could not abide having my freedom taken away and being subject to someone else’s whims at their beck and call.
And so I quite to become a freelance copywriter.
One of the dangers of self-employment is the crisis-lull-crisis rhythm of so many businesses.
To protect yourself against the slow times, you should create multiple streams of income – some active, some passive.
I have 5 income streams: (a) copywriting, (b) consulting, (c) Internet marketing, (d) writing books, and (e) giving workshops and seminars.
That way, I am always busy. If copywriting would ever slow, as happened a few times very early in my career, I would turn to the book I had under contract or do some workshops.
The best thing is that, being self-employed, I can largely work on tasks and projects when I want to do them, not when someone else tells me to do them.
Even meetings and conference calls are scheduled by me when I want to and can do them, not when someone else commands me to.
My old friend DH says, “I don’t like taking orders, and I don’t like giving orders.” I feel the same way.
That’s why, aside from my administrative assistant, JV, I work alone. And JV is a virtual assistant, so I really am alone all day, as I prefer.
Success is doing what I want to do, when I want to do it, “with the people I want to work with.”
By working diligently and consistently to build my copywriting practice, I could soon pick and choose the clients I accepted.
This way I could work only with people I like and respect – and only on projects that interest me.
If you are in a service business, figure out how much self-promotion you need to do to fill your book of business … and then do twice that amount of marketing.
This will fill your lead pipeline to overflowing and allow you to pick and choose what clients and assignments you take on.
The last part of my success formula: “getting paid very, very well.”
Goal setting experts would find fault with this statement, because it does not specify a dollar amount of money.
Well, I live in an affluent neighborhood. So I decided that for me, getting paid well meant earning 4X or more per year than my average neighbor.
You may have a different money goal: higher annual earnings or the accumulation of a net worth of a certain dollar amount; i.e. a million bucks.
That’s a valuable and laudable goal, but it simply isn’t part of my personal success definition. But by all means, if you want it to be part of your success definition, go for it.
One other thing….
I have a litmus test for your definition of success, and it’s simple: Does it allow you to live comfortably? Does it make you happy?
If you can say yes, then you are successful. At least in my eyes. And I hope in yours, too.
[Ed. Note. Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in direct marketing. McGraw-Hill calls Bob "America's top copywriter." He is the author of 80 books including The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt). You can find out more about Bob Bly at www.bly.com.]