We all want to be successful in life, but what we mean by success differs a lot between individuals. The prevailing norm in society today is to equate success with wealth. Of course wealth is not absolute and what constitutes wealth is subject to ever increasing upward corrections as its distribution gets skewed further in favour of the top 1%. So if you are not going to make it into the top 1% or don’t want to, what might success be for you?

As it turns out, there are a number of different needs that we can turn into success measures. Primarily these are:

  1. Achievement / Status
  2. Comfort / Safety
  3. Autonomy
  4. Meaning / Purpose
  5. Connection
  6. Competence / Mastery

We are usually after a combination of these needs, with varying degrees of priority. For myself, I have a very high need for autonomy and mastery, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am running my own business and that I have developed extensive expertise in my chosen field.

So let’s explore these six needs in a bit more detail so that you can assess your own priorities and therefore success measures. Wealth is basically a proxy for achievement and status in our society today. We tend to equate status with wealth and we even presume that when someone has a high profile, like a celebrity, that they are going to be wealthy. Of course wealth is a very narrow measure of achievement, it negates achievements in other fields that don’t come with big financial payoffs. If achievement and status are important to you, make sure you use a suitable measuring stick for your industry or context.

Comfort and safety are proxies for security, knowing that you don’t have to worry to e.g. make ends meet, get reliable healthcare and have the comfort of a belief system that keeps you safe. This need is currently out of favour and most people will not openly talk about favouring a comfortable life. In fact, today it is much safer to say that you are incredibly busy, so that you don’t get extra tasks at work. Nevertheless, it is a valid need and if you have this as your top priority, make sure that you don’t feel you need to conform to the societal drive for achievement.

Autonomy is about the freedom to make your own decisions, the freedom to act in line with your values and beliefs. With autonomy comes both responsibility and accountability. With societal roles and norms shifting over recent decades, autonomy has become much more accessible to those who need it. The same trend has happened at work, where at least in white collar jobs the degree of autonomy has mostly increased over time. Part of the vast increase in independent contractors and small businesses is a reflection of a growing need for autonomy. The ultimate expression of the autonomy trend is the evolution of ‘prosumers’ – consumers who are also producers.

With increased autonomy often comes an increasing need for meaning and purpose or for connection. We are very social creatures and whilst autonomy gives us independence and the leeway to be ‘ourselves’, in the end we either need to make a difference to society as a whole or we need to feel embedded in a network of supportive relationships. What is hampering the effort of so many people on the quest for meaning and purpose is that it can’t be found in your head, it can only be found in what you are willing to do for others and the greater good. As such, it is closely related to the need to contribute beyond yourself. If your need is more about connection it will be around building a set of mutually supportive, reciprocal relationships. This preserves autonomy of choice, yet adds social support, which is one of the key ingredients for resilience.

Many people have a need for lifelong learning, for developing competence and eventually mastery in their chosen field. Here the most interesting development is that we now have access to the full, global scale of competence. Just like in elite sport, you can now measure yourself against the best in your field, be it in programming, science, music, arts, gaming or whatever endeavour you have chosen to pursue. This is daunting in a way, but also enables the journey towards mastery. If you can learn from the very best, like through taking a MOOC, and if you can compare yourself to the very best, then you can truly achieve mastery and test the limits of your capability.

The best way to assess if you are currently succeeding is to take stock of your emotions. When you are satisfying a need, you trigger a positive emotion, such as contentment or happiness. The flipside is that unfulfilled needs trigger negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. We are experiencing negative emotions 3-4 times stronger than positive ones, so make sure you don’t feel ‘unsuccessful’ because you are not 100% positive all the time. Negative emotions are supposed to act as a ‘corrective jolt’ to trigger reflection and hence enable learning. This is what makes human so adaptable. Your best way of finding success is to pay attention to both positive and negative emotions. To feel successful it really helps to celebrate when you have satisfied a core need. To find out if you are missing a vital component to your success formula, pay attention to patterns of negative emotions to reveal unsatisfied needs.