What Is The Definition Of Success & Is It An Illusion

Everyone talks about SUCCESS. The word is thrown around so often, it’s almost become nauseating to hear it. However, have you ever asked yourself, what is the definition of success? More importantly, is that definition great or an illusion causing to always chase something you just can’t quite grab?

Well, when you’re looking to define something, the best place to start is of course the dictionary.

Here’s what you get by simply typing success definition into Google:

  • accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
  • attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.
  • a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc

The trouble here is that the very definition of success is contradictory.

The accomplishment of an aim or purpose is NOT the same as the attainment of fame, wealth or social status.

The contradiction is further highlighted in bullet 3: a person or thing that achieves desired aims OR attains fame, wealth, etc.

So let me ask you this:

If I have an aim or purpose to be a spiritual seer, who wants to abstain from the material world as much as possible…and therefore completely shun fame, wealth and social status…

Am I successful if I accomplish that?

According to the first part of the definition, then yes. But according to the second part, then no.

White Ferrari
A Ferrari is considered as a sign of success in today’s consumerist world

Subjective Matter Being Forced Into An Objective Box

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The definition of success is SUBJECTIVE. That means every individual has a definition of success which is (or should be) completely DIFFERENT than anybody else.

Unfortunately, that’s not how we’re brought up nor how we are conditioned.

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a pandemic that’s swamped the world over.

We’ve never seen anything like it, and most of us find ourselves quarantined at home.

I won’t go into the impact of what’s going on…but for the sake of this article I will say this is a perfect opportunity to REFLECT, which is something I’ve been doing a lot.

A part of that reflection has been the definition of success. What I’ve come to realise is that I am actually uncertain whether MY definition of success is my own or whether it’s a definition I’ve adopted through conditioning and conformity.

Let’s be honest, when you think of success it’s the definition of fame, wealth and social status that comes to mind.

Societal Conditioning

And why wouldn’t it…that’s the definition that was implanted into us since birth.

You have to go to school to learn and get good grades, so that you then go to University to get a good degree so that you become a professional and get a good job, so that you become wealthy and buy all the things you need and want.

It’s no mistake that the consumerist society we live in would push this definition of success. It’s what makes this society tick.

But recently, we’ve seen a backlash to the traditional schooling model. The 9-5ers are seen as wage slaves.

It’s now more cool to be an entrepreneur starting your own business, so you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want without anybody telling you what to do.

But what to those people peddle? The VERY SAME definition of success: fame, wealth & social status.

In fact, it’s such a toxic cult that if anyone says they’re not money oriented, or they don’t want to pursue money the response is:

“Oh you’ve been brain-washed into thinking money is evil. You’ve got mental blockages about money because of your poor upbringing and your poor parents. You’re not ambitious enough.”

I went through the traditional school system, did well, got the degree, got the Lawyer qualification, made the money, got the fancy toys…but one thing stood out: I was never happy. In fact, it was the opposite, I was miserable.

Modern Entrepreneurship vs Traditional Career Path

Since making the change from the traditional corporate life, and transitioning into entrepreneurship, I’ve taken many courses on different skills, but also on self improvement and mindset.

Here’s the general message on most, if not all, of such courses:

We’ve been deceived into thinking money is evil.

It’s not about money, it about what money can do.

Making lots of money is a good thing because it will let you help more people, and live a life of freedom.

If you’re not making a lot of money it’s because you’ve got limiting beliefs or unconscious blockages.

And you get the gist.

I went from being someone who never cared about making money, being famous or having social status to “rewiring” my brain into believing I need to become a millionaire.

With all the deep work I’ve been doing on mindset and changing “beliefs” over the last few years, all of my goals and visions for the future are predicated on making a lot of money, so I can help more people and live a life of freedom on my terms.

The last paragraph, upon reflection, is what scares me.

Having lots of money is regarded as the epitome of success for many

Hello! Is It Me…Setting My Goals?

If you take a look at the language I’ve used, the concepts I’ve put forward, what do you notice?

It’s pretty much the exact same language almost every course on mindset, personal development, online marketing etc uses.

So I have to ask the question:

Are these my goals or have I just adopted and been conditioned by the content I’m consuming?

Is my vision for the future truly mine and one I want, or have I conformed to the vision I’ve been told is one of success?

Previously my definition of success came from the conditioning of school.

Now my definition of success is based upon all the content I’ve been consuming on entrepreneurship, business and online marketing.

In short: I’m confused. I don’t know what my definition is.

That’s why on some days I’ll spout you don’t need money to be happy, and on other days I’ll spout making money and lots of it is a worthy pursuit because it will provide the platform to help so many people.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying either of these is right or wrong.

I don’t think wanting a lot of money and working for it is wrong; in fact I think the opposite, it’s a good thing to do; as long as you do it ethically…but more importantly if it is something you actually want to do for yourself.

What Do You Really Want?

Here’s the thing, nobody wants money….they want the things money can buy.

So, you’ll come across marketers saying: “I don’t sell money…I sell FREEDOM.”

Probably the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard.

Nobody wants freedom…they want what freedom allows.

Ask yourself, why do you want money?

So I can buy things, from necessities like food, water and clothing, to luxuries like flashy cars, big houses and designer clothes. And of course the ability to help people, charities and not be chained to a desk; the last point being freedom.

But then why do you want freedom?

To be able to do whatever I want whenever I want.

Okay, cool…so once you have freedom, what will you do?

Are Desires Conditioned or Natural?

This is where it gets interesting. When you get to this point, guess what the most popular answer will be?


“…errr, I don’t know…like I’d spend time with my family, travel the world, you know just do what I want to do”

If you push for more specific answers, you’ll notice something else: agitation creeping in.

A lot of people just don’t know what they want to do.

It reminds me of all the law students and colleagues I used to speak to.

Almost every single one used to say: I want a training contract. (To be a solicitor (lawyer) you had to do a 2 year training contract with a law firm after your degree & law school to actually qualify).

What does wealth, fame and social status mean for you?

Obtaining a training contract was notoriously difficult. It’s why most law students never pursued a career in law.

But so many aspired to get a training contract, I heard it so many times, I just want a training contract…so I’d ask why… “so I can qualify”.

Great, then what?

And the answer was “I don’t know, I just want to qualify” EVERY SINGLE TIME.

In other words, law students were conditioned into thinking they need to get a training contract and qualify. And that was the culmination of success. So much so, most never thought past that point.

The theme continues with modern day entrepreneurship and online marketing….people want success, they want money, they want freedom….very few know what they’ll actually do once they get it.

And once they do get it, a lot will realise it’s not what they thought it would be. They end up becoming depressed.

Spent so long working hard and chasing something, that when they finally get it, it’s underwhelming.

This, I believe, comes back down to having adopted a definition of success, rather than having one which is true to the individual’s nature.

Icons of Success

When we talk about success today, when people talk about “successful people” which names do we always hear?

  • Jeff Bezos
  • Warren Buffett
  • Richard Branson
  • Elon Musk
  • Bill Gates
  • Steve Jobs

Just take a look at the names on this list from a reputable website: <Success List>

Anytime you hear somebody trying to motivate you towards success, at some point one of these figures or someone like them will be mentioned.

“Oh, you have to read Branson’s biography, so motivating.”

Or if you want to be successful, model people who’ve done it before you; so people will model these guys.

In the outrage culture that we have today….let me once again make clear, I DO NOT THINK that there is anything wrong with this.

If you do this, superb…best of luck. Keep at it.

But here’s the point from my personal individual point of view:

What do these guys have in common for me?


If I believed in reincarnation, and if I had a thousand lifetimes, the truth is I would never want to live a life as any one of them.

So, upon reflection in these corona times, I’ve come to the realisation that most of my personal heroes throughout history and alive today, were/are not “materially” wealthy.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X – A hero of mine whom i’d aspire to be like & consider successful

Who Are Your Real Heroes?

This creates cognitive dissonance.

I’m chasing material wealth, but I have nobody to look up to, because the materially wealthy people are not inspirational (FOR ME!).

So, the question is, who do I aspire to be like? Who are my heroes?

  • Jinnah – Died with a couple of rupees to his name.
  • Poet/philosophers: Iqbal, Rumi, Ghazali
  • Malcolm X
  • The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – yes there is an argument that’s based on conditioning of my religious upbringing. It would be naïve of me to say there’s no bias in that choice.

Let me put it another way…when I die…in the afterlife, when every human soul is gathered together (leaving out the concept of heaven & hell)…every human that ever existed is present…

Whose company would I want to be in?

Whose company would you like to be in?

Who would you want to be surrounded by?

Who would you want around you?

Again, this is all subjective and depends on your perception of people from history.

But for me…the names mentioned earlier, the materially wealthy ones, wouldn’t even get a thought.

Now this is in no way shape or form meant to insult or belittle any of those guys.

These guys are successful, they’ve accomplished a lot and most likely more than I ever will…the point is these are the champions of “success”, but not for me.

Can You Be Considered Successful Without Material Wealth?

The point is, my perception of success deep down is not in line with the modern day interpretation of success.

The counter-argument though, which would be correct, is that these guys are not successful because they are famous, wealthy and have social status.

It’s that they have fame, wealth and social status because they were successful in doing what they set out to do.

Thereby, they were successful based on the first part of the definition, the accomplishment of an aim or purpose…and as a result the second part of the definition was a consequence.

But the question is, are these guys championed as successful because they accomplished an aim, or because they are materially wealthy?

In other words, would they be lauded the same if they had achieved what they set out to achieve but didn’t amass the fame and fortune?

For example, Steve Jobs creates the iPhone…but he nor his company never get rich – would he still be considered to be a success at exactly the same level he is today?

I don’t think so. It’s not that they achieved their aim, it’s that they got wealthy from it, which has given them icon status they have.

Take Jinnah as an example, yes I know this is inherently biased, but from an unbiased perspective, let me give you a quote from Stanley Wolpart:

“Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three.”

Apart from Pakistanis…how many people consider Jinnah to be successful?

How is it that he’s never mentioned in the pantheon of successful humans considering he achieved something 0.0000000001% of humans ever will?

Would it be different if he didn’t die materially broke, if he died with billions of dollars in his account?

Probably – although Muslim discrimination would still have doused his accomplishments.

What Is It That Actually Makes You Wealthy?

But is there anyone materially wealthy I do aspire to be like?

  • Thierry Henry
  • Michael Jackson
  • Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was wealthy and famous – but he is respected for his art

However, none because of their material wealth.

They all have one thing in common, the perfection of their chosen art/craft.

I’d want to play football like Henry, perform like MJ, be a martial artist like Bruce.

Not be like them for their wealth or fame.

In other words, true wealth isn’t the attainment of fame, money or social status…it’s perfecting an art that is personally enjoyed.

In chasing money, in chasing wealth, in chasing FREEDOM, I’ve overlooked the art I enjoy and want to perfect.

When I was younger, I had an interest in playing the violin, & the guitar & the piano. I pursued none.

A further example is: one of my siblings was a good painter. I recently asked, why didn’t you pursue art?

The answer: “there was no money in art.”

The decision to pursue a career was solely based on wealth.

Even though it was incorrect to think there is no money in art, it was a belief that: I have to do that which will bring me money, not that which will give me satisfaction nor the pursuit of an inherent talent.

What Would You Do If There Was No Money Involved?

I ask myself now, I’m currently pursuing the business of deal making… am I pursuing this because of the art or because I’m chasing wealth?

It’s hard to be honest.

I’ve invested so much time, so much energy, and so much money it’s hard to admit I’m making a decision based on wealth.

I’ve convinced my self I need to make a lot of money, so I can help a lot more people, and live the life of freedom that I want.

No doubt there are many aspects I enjoy the thrill of in the deal making process.

So I have to take the test which brings the real answer:

Would I do this if I didn’t get paid? If there was no money, would I do it? Or if every job on the planet had equal pay, and I could choose anything, would I do this?

The answer is no.

I wouldn’t have become a lawyer if there was equal pay.

I wouldn’t be a dealmaker.

What would I do?

Maybe explore those forgotten dreams I had when I was younger.

Play the guitar, the violin.

I’d write.

I’d be an archaeologist, and uncover stories of the past (albeit my perception is one of Indiana Jones on amazing adventures).

How about you? What would you do if every possible activity had no pay or equal pay.

You had the complete freedom to choose any activity, and interest on the planet…what would you do?

Filling The Void

I suppose the truth is, I’m in my mid-30s and I’m confused because I haven’t pursued an art or skill that I can say I absolutely love this and I’d do it without getting paid.

Playing the guitar is a forgotten dream of mine

And I think so many are in this boat.

However, another major thing that is over-looked is:

For many…the pursuit of wealth, fame and social status is a symptom of emptiness.

Filling a void which comes from never taking the time to think about what they truly want.

What they are supremely talented at.

What skills they have or want to pursue and perfect.

So the void is replaced by the conditioned desires of wanting to get rich and famous, because that’s what success is, and that’s what will fill the emptiness.

I’m certain this also leads to the mental health crisis we currently have. My first article explores this concept in more detail, which you can read by clicking here: <Opening Up On Mental Health>

Unfortunately, without doing the deep internal work first, far too many realise they were chasing an illusion, because once they get it, they feel the void bigger than ever.

To put some final thoughts in an already lengthy article, one last point is, when I ask who would I want to be surrounded by in the afterlife, my answer right now is:

I’d be too embarrassed to be in the company of my heroes.

Embarrassed by the life I’ve lived, not matching the ideals and values I think are worthy of pursuit, but haven’t been pursued…and therefore not worthy of being in the company of those that dedicated and perfected their craft.

How about you? Would you run into the company of your heroes, not based on adoration or fandom, but because you can have a conversation about your achievements matching theirs and developing a camaraderie of mutual respect?

To wrap up, what is your definition of success?

Can you truly say this definition is yours, or is it one you’ve adopted? Or maybe you don’t know?

In which case, what steps will you take to undergo this internal reflection?

I would love to hear your thoughts, answers and critique in the comments below.

18 thoughts on “What Is The Definition Of Success & Is It An Illusion

  1. Aloha and great post on success.

    I believe that each person has their own definition of success.

    Some see money as the ultimate form of success, such as being rich and being able to buy anything you want.

    Others see happiness as a form of success. As long as you are happy and stress free, that is a pretty good life.

    All in all, i think it totally depends and each person has to define it for themseves.


    Will bookmark and share!

    1. Hi and thank you for your comment.

      Each person should have their own definition, but I don’t think they actually do which is the point of the article.

      But yes, if they do define their own definition, then it doesn’t matter if it is money and fame, or whatever else…simply because they’ve thought about it and defined it themselves.

      Appreciate that, thanks.

  2. Years ago I left England and ended up with a great job in California. When a girl friend visited me she commended me on my success. In her mind, I had pushed myself outside my comfort zone by leaving England with no job and ended up with a career much better than what I had left behind. 

    With reference to your various definitions of success, this would fall within the earning ore money sphere. But to me, it was more than that. I had embarked on an adventure in a new country. 

    After years of experience my definition of success has changed a great deal. Successful people change the world for the better, one person at a time. The titans of Industry from Henry Ford, Thomas Edison all the way to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, have had an impact that moved the trajectory of society as they found it. These examples demonstrate success on steroids. 

    We all don’t have to change the world like these icons to be deemed successful. In our own way, we can use our talents to help the people around us to make their lives a bit better. That to me also defines success. 

    Somehow creating wealth to achieve a lifestyle of luxury is not my idea of success. Although most people would think so because it helps the average person to dream. 



    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful comment Edwin.

      I definitely would agree that the first example, of you leaving England for a job in California, is a sign of success…simply for the reason you stated: the adventure!

      That’s the key point I was trying to make, if you make a conscious choice to go on your own adventure which isn’t a result of what others have told you to do, then that is success.

      Also agree with your point about the definition changing, it’s a sign of growth. If the definition stayed the same that would mean we’ve become stagnant, which is the opposite of success.

      And I 100% endorse your point about using your talents to help people around us as being a key mark of success; unfortunately I think there’s a generation of us that felt we had to do something that changes the world.

      Appreciate your thoughts, thank you.

  3. Excellent article, well written and great at informing us about the topic, have booked marked this page in fact !
    Many thanks Jason

  4. Hi Zulfaqar,

    What an absolutely fascinating read. I completely agree that the definition of success is subjective, as you’ve alluded to above. Plus, you’ve once again hit the nail on the head, I believe we are conditioned to accept that success is achieved through “fame, wealth & social status”.

    I’m still looking for that “thing” that lights a fire in my soul, my passion, my artisitic or skillful outlet. Once found, that’ll be success for me.


    1. Hello Partha,

      Many thanks for your compliment, thrilled you found it fascinating.

      I think many people need to experiment with different things to find that “thing”. Sometimes it isn’t obvious, and takes a bit of trial and error to actually find. And sometimes it’s about that journey of seeking which becomes the most important thing. But yeah, finding it and then working on it is a good definition of success.

      Thank you.

  5. I thank you for sharing your thoughts through this article, you know for many years I struggled never actually feeling I had been successful at anything. As I read your article I realized I have had more success than I ever realized, and many times it is not the big things such as how much money we have in the bank or what we own that makes us feel the most successful.

    Thank you

    1. Wow….i’m glad the article was able to have that kind of impact upon you. For sure, many people will have been successful but not felt like it because it doesn’t fit in the commonly accepted definition of success, i.e. being rich and famous.

      Appreciate your comment, thank you.

  6. Wow, you have given me so much to think about! We really are conditioned by society to think about success in terms of wealth and fame. We rarely see people in the news or history books that lived a full life, accomplished their dreams, but didn’t end up with millions of dollars. It is a hard balance to find because we need money, yet we are basically taught the two extremes- you either love money and live for it or it is evil. I am now redefining my definition of success. Thank you!

    1. I’m thrilled the article was able to make an impact on you to redefine your definition.

      Totally agree, it seems we’re taught the extremes only, either get really rich or money is evil and it should be shunned.

      As always, the middle-path is generally the best, but ultimately it comes down to what each individual actually wants.

      Thank you

  7. For me success is two things – being able to do things you want to in life and this comes with having enough finances but secondly being able to have a positive impact on the world. If I can d something that helps people lead a healthier life I will be happy. Thank you for sharing, great post.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Yes that is a great definition to have, impacting people’s lives for the better is always a worthy cause.

      Appreciate the comment.

  8. It’s because of the world we live in today that is plagued with consumerism that has programmed us from small age to think that success means a lot of money with everything this can bring like fame, houses and accumulation of wealth. Obviously the reality as you also mention is completely different as success is not just being able to make a lot of money. But it’s how they have programmed us in order to be another cog in the consumer world we live in. We all aspire to become reach in order to spend more but this is a very shallow approach and most people cannot comprehend what real success is when you push them for an answer.

    1. Absolutely…breaking the conditioning and re-thinking the definition for ourselves is key. 

      It has to be entirely subjective, and can only come from deep thought and analysis. 

      A lot just don’t have the time and energy to do the deep work, which is why you don’t get much in response when you push them. 

      Thank you for your thoughts.

  9. Hello there thanks for the review. It was of great value I must say. Being successful means the achievement of desired visions and planned goals. Furthermore, success can be a certain social status that describes a prosperous person that could also have gained fame for its favorable outcome. Real success in life is achieving the goals that matter to you the most. Based on the way your personality developed and the life experiences you have been through since you were born certain certain things will become important to you

    1. You make some excellent points there. 

      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and share your thoughts.

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