One Question that Will Save You from Failure

One Simple Question That Will Save You From Failure

by Taylor Jacobson

In the end, the questions you ask of yourself
determine the type of person you become.

If you’re human, you’ve shared in the experience of seeking validation.

It may be a simmering, subconscious compulsion – to get promoted, to get another degree, to lift a heavier weight or do a harder yoga pose – to be more, in some way, than you are now.

Or maybe you’re on the front lines of your battle for self-worth, constantly questioning yourself.  “Do I have a right to her love?  Surely she’ll leave me.”  “Am I good enough to let my voice be heard at this meeting?  I’d better defer to my colleagues.”

Whatever your striving for validation looks like, you are not alone.  Renowned social psychology researcher Albert Bandura showed that we’re constantly comparing ourselves against others and making decisions accordingly.

This is a smart strategy from an evolutionary perspective – fitting in is a good way to survive.

But we’re no longer trying simply to survive.  The luxury and curse of our era is that we can do virtually anything we want with our lives.

And in this world of possibility, you are leaving your greatest potential unfulfilled by letting others define what success means for you.

Damaging Comparisons

When I look around at my peers, I see brilliant people who are changing the world: doctors, lawyers, humanitarian sector workers, blossoming corporate champions, entrepreneurs, etc.

My friends are awesome, but if I tried to define my own success by comparing myself to them, I’d feel terrible.

I know this because I’ve done it.

In my early 20s, I worried that I wasn’t good at picking up girls at the bar.  As foolish as that sounds, I kept trying because I saw friends do it and let it become a measure of my worth.

More comparisons followed.  Could I hack it as a management consultant?  Could I get into a top business school?  These were self-imposed tests that I wasn’t even aware of while they were happening.

I went through years of experimentation and self-doubt in order to cultivate the resolve that I now have about my path.

I still find immense value in different perspectives and love to hear about the journeys my friends are on, but I also know that I have my own journey.

The most important step for me was finally becoming aware that I was making comparisons, and deciding to create my own, different measures of success.

Where in your life are you making these damaging comparisons?

One Simple Question: How Do You Define Success?

Many people achieve the outward trappings of success without ever reflecting on what really matters to them.  They are like racehorses with blinders on their eyes, galloping around a track, trying to “win.”

Taking these blinders off can be bewildering.  If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the totality of your free will, you have experienced this.

Meet that bewildering freedom by asking yourself one fundamental question:  What does success mean to me?

Have you ever honestly asked yourself this question?  Or have you simply adopted your priorities from everyone around you?

Are you crystal clear on what success means for you?

Here are a six ways you could measure success:

  • Are you a Fortune 500 CEO, or in line to become one?
  • Have you won any political campaigns?
  • Have you won any international athletic competitions?  Do you hold any world records?
  • Have you won a Grammy Award?  A Nobel Prize?
  • Do people turn their heads when they see your car?
  • Does your smartphone contacts database have more than 10 celebrities in it?

Here are a six other ways you could measure success:

  • Have you dropped everything to help a friend in need?
  • Did you do any favors today for complete strangers?
  • Have you recently listened to someone else’s story without talking about yourself?
  • Have you spoken up against friends, family and authority figures that were in the wrong by their words or actions?  Even when it was hard to do so?
  • Have you kept silent when you knew you were right, knowing that an argument would be useless?
  • Have you been patient, compassionate, and gentle toward those who have wronged you?

The point is not that one measure of success is any better or worse than another.

The point is that you get to choose how you define it for yourself.

Simply recognize that the more conscious and deliberate you can be about what success means for YOU, the more empowered you will be to pursue the path that’s true for you.

Your turn…

How do you define success?  What would make you successful in your own mind?  Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Author Bio:  Taylor Jacobson is a leadership and career coach, empowering people to discover and unleash their best selves.  Explore his blog, 21 Switchbacks, and say hello on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by: Christopher Mueller


  1. Daniel says

    I would consider myself successful when I am able to realize my full potential.

    On the other hand… I sacrificed everything, and got myself into a devastating money situation by helping a parent who was dying of cancer and had no health insurance. They were refusing treatment due to money, so I agreed to help them. The sale of their estate after passing was supposed to take care of all the debt I had accumulated, but instead I saw nothing of that and got stuck with enough debt that will take me the rest of my life to pay off…and that effectively eliminated medical school from my career list, along with almost every backup plan…

    Some may consider the fact that I helped a parent have a better last couple of years to be successful. Do I? I did, at one point. But, after the persistent decline in my quality of life, I don’t know anymore. Eating out of a dumpster, sitting at McDonald’s so you can eat off of other peoples trays, and watching all your career aspirations go up in smoke due to money can really make you reanalyze things.

    My life has become the never ending quest of what it means to be successful…and if I’ll ever get there…

    Your posts always make me think. Thanks for posting.

  2. says

    Great concept that you brought up here, Taylor. Success for me are the little victories of every day life, the steps I’ve taken that the past-me wouldn’t have been able to.

    For example, “Have you kept silent when you knew you were right, knowing that an argument would be useless?” The old me would have had to get his ego stroked and his argument validated. I’m right and I better make the other person know it! That’s how I used to think but now I am much better with holding my tongue. To me, that’s success.

    Then of course, my bigger goal (though still vague right now) is to be able to do what makes me happy instead of doing it for money. Boom!

  3. Debbie says

    Having endured a difficult childhood. Success to me is being a loving and supportive Mother to my daughters and with the partnership of my husband providing a safe and happy home.

  4. says

    Great post and I love the 6 examples of measuring success!

    I define success by:

    1. My ability to raise my 2 beautiful kids and inspire them to make a difference in the world.

    2. To love my wife more and more each day and be a great husband.

    3. When I am about to leave this world…be at peace with myself knowing that I did my part in making it a better place!

  5. J says

    I will feel successful when my life doesn’t feel like it does now.

    I am currently in a overwhelming perfect storm with so many stressful life events that just adding to the “HUGE bend in the road” since 2009. I made those bad “successful” comparisons in my life and those past decisions are now biting me. I moved to California in June 2012, only to return in April 2013 because I was mistaken that my family who offered to help would cut me off.

    Taking on school debt so we could send our daughter to college is now taking us under like an anchor tied to my ankles. She’s angry that I did not have the strength to say “no” to her amongst other things; she has cut me off from her life and from my granddaughter. She feels successful with a husband with a 6 digit income, in laws that provide big gestures and gifts, and the ability to be a stay at home mom.

    Me, I am trying to find daily small successes to mend my own broken heart and broken life. I am trying to find band aids to remind me that I am still worthy, I am still a good person, I have a good heart, and that when I find my strength again, life will be good again.

  6. joy says

    I am ME. I cannot be anyone but ME. No matter what is going on in the world, it’s still ME. I’ve learned to love ME, accept ME, and be the best ME there is for ME..

  7. Andrea says

    I think success changes as you get older and depends on so much. I find it is important to reevaluate regularly as circumstances change. Right now, success for me is to remain as balanced as possible while trying to juggle all my competing needs and plans. It seems that success in one area, sometimes unbalances another area. Success is a balancing act.

  8. Tanvi says

    Theres a common misconception that you have to do something “big” to be successful. But the experiences that build our lives are so vast that so too must our purposes be. Emersom captured this beautifully:


    To laugh often and much;
    To win the respect of intelligent people
    and the affection of children;
    To earn the appreciation of honest critics
    and endure the betrayal of false friends;
    To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
    To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
    a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
    To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
    This is to have succeeded.

  9. Angela says

    Throughout my life I have consistently compared myself to others to figure out where I am and if I am on the right track. I think part of it is because I didn’t have appropriate role models growing up, including my parents, that defined for me what personal success looks like. Quite the opposite, I was constantly belittled and demeaned until I eventually just emulated behaviors that were pleasing to others.

    It was survival. As an adult, I became lost. What are MY goals? What do I want? What are MY thoughts and beliefs? I was so used to someone else telling me what they were, I couldn’t define them for myself. This has become a personal life challenge.

  10. says

    Success to me is the feeling that happens when I’m being present and in the moment. It is being happy and peaceful. I could equate it with material things – my own place, a newer car, more income – but who is to say that would actually feel good when I’m there and have those things. Thus, “success” for me is a feeling of wellbeing. Thanks for the thought provoking conversation.

  11. Karen says

    Success to me is breaking out of my comfort zone, ignoring voices in my head, and taking chances! Success is setting little goals and reaching those goals. Sometimes it’s just the littlest things, like waking up and deciding to be happy and have a good day. I’m so ready to be doing something I love and enjoy, which is photography (creating art with images…). I’m working on that path, and while I’m not there yet, it makes me happy that I have that direction to satisfy me right now. It’s stepping out of my comfort zone big time because I grew up being taught that people “go to work” to earn a living… Me, I’d rather not be tied down by an organization that dictates my life…how much vacation I have, oh by the way we’re staying late tonight for a meeting, word in the office is they’re planning layoffs,,,,etc… No thanks! I’m going to charge ahead and work on my dream of “art through photography”.

  12. Nancy Blacketer says

    I think Andrea, who posted above, had a very good point. She posted: “I think success changes as you get older and depends on so much. I find it is important to reevaluate regularly as circumstances change. Right now, success for me is to remain as balanced as possible while trying to juggle all my competing needs and plans. It seems that success in one area, sometimes unbalances another area. Success is a balancing act.”

    So glad I am getting these emails now. Great reminders in each one!

  13. Clairey says

    I suppose the biggest measure of success for me is living each day as I believe God wants me to. It affords me peace, plain and simple, and that feeling is a true sign of success in my estimation! For me, it is about striving to be kind, gracious, loving, loyal, caring, supportive, encouraging, honest, generous, helpful, providing a loving home and ….it’s about being passionate and involved in the daily ins and outs of my life….being present. I am more able to achieve some of these things when I am peace-filled, and that’s the goal I try to attain.

  14. Lilly says

    Success to me would be able to define success for myself. It is hard to sit with yourself and define who your are, what you need and want out of life and how to get there.
    My first definition of success…

    1. To accept myself and love myself ALL of the time!
    2. Help people in the way that I want to and finding a way to do that.
    3. Be peaceful

  15. Carrie says

    Holding my tongue to avoid a useless argument? I’ve spent 20 years doing that. My success has been finding my voice. Now I make my point quietly and unemotionally – husband has lost the power to intimidate me with his anger simply because the children have grown up. Of course we still don’t argue – but not because I am powerless and afraid, but because I see no point, no gain and the day of liberation is approaching.

  16. Susan says

    I have raised three successful children who are making an impact on the world in their respective fields. This is success for me.

  17. Maureen Rhodin says

    I feel successful when I can be in the world at peace in my heart. The goal for which I seek success is to remove from my consciousness the belief in duality–black or white, right or wrong, angels or demons, haves and have nots, etc. When I can truly see unity in life–the embodiment of both in all–I am at peace and there is no “other.”

  18. Sieglinde McTigue says

    I finally feel successful. Success to me is feeling comfortable in my own skin, not being afraid to speak my truth, and having faith in myself. No matter what comes my way, I have the inner resources to deal with it. I saw a great little plaque the other day, “The grass is green where you water it.” I would change it to: “The grass is greener where you water and fertilize it.”

  19. Michelle says

    I think that success is defined by everyone differently.

    Success to me is being able to be comfortable in your own skin. Being able to express your thoughts and your fears and not be afraid of ridicule. I have lost 120 pounds and kept it off for four years now. I have lost and gained many friends in the process. I have dealt with jealousy of friends/coworkers/and even my ex-husband. In the end you define your own success. I have learned in the end that if you cannot be happy within your own self/soul that it is impossible to make anyone else happy. When you are 100% whole with yourself and God you have that peace that surpasses all understanding and life is worth living every day. I now celebrate the small successes every day. In the end it is the smallest of things that make us the most happy.

  20. David Rapp says

    I have spenet years reading up on this subject because my “successes” seemed hollow and short-lived. So this is what I have to date, at age 44.

    I am married to a wonderful woman who I am rediscovering every day.

    I have a wonderful 6 year old son.

    I have a great job with a solid company.

    I am no longer validating who I am by any measures other than my own.

    Money is my slave, not my master.

    The only statistic that matters to me is knowing how many people love me.

    I am the biggest failure I know, its my secret formula to learning quickly.

    I am the biggest coward I know, it forces me to be brave when I am scared out of my mind.

    I am the biggest fraud I know, it makes me push to be authentic when confronted by anger, abuse, condescension or challenge.

    I am faulted, flawed, fragile and fearful. But God built me for the long haul, and my namesake was a man after God’s own heart….and the is a goal worthy of a lifelong pursuit.

  21. Maggie says

    Andrea, you hit it bang on – wonderful insight. I have had great success in my career and it was the complete focus of my life – to the sacrifice of personal relationships. Thirteen months ago I met the most wonderful man ever – and suddenly, my perspective on success changed. It has been an interesting journey to re-balance and I am still in the process of redefining what success is to me at this point in my life.

  22. Valerie says

    @Daniel, File for chapter 7 bankruptcy and fill out an application for food stamps. You can do it online in most states. You will have the remainder of your life back debt free after 7 years of bankruptcy.

  23. Beverly says

    It took getting past 50 to figure it out, but today success for me is when I give of myself to help someone in the moment that it is needed, with no thought of how I will be impacted. It could be time, encouragement, a recommendation, a hook-up, some money, a listening ear, or an unexpected visit. There is a line in one of the Conversations with God books that says, “Act before you think.” When my gut says act, and I follow that prompt, I count it as a success. Money, status, and possessions can’t compare to the feeling of knowing I’ve made someone’s life a little easier, even if just for a moment. And when I do that, I know I’m on track with who and what I want to be.

  24. says

    Great post on defining success!

    I used to define success by a yearly income and material items, not anymore. It’s not that fulfilling.

    What makes me successful is that I show up in my life every day. I also have the courage to persevere in the midst of a storm. I choose my battles wisely and think to myself, “Is this worth it?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not.

    I’m successful because I’m still here, on planet earth, living and breathing and doing the best I can. 😉

  25. says

    Try this to raise some funds and get back on your feet using GoFundMe. Through GoFundMe Crowdfunding, I really hope you are able to achieve all that you ever desired for. I will make the first bit of donation to your cause.

  26. ssreddy 555 says

    Success for me right now is sending positive vibrations around.

    If I’m successful in helping to create a positive & peaceful atmosphere in the place where I live, I feel I’m successful.

  27. James says


    I warmly commend your action despite the subsequent fallout. The rest of the world looks on in horror and amazement at the U.S.’s lack of proper social support.

    Your efforts are truly heart-warming and your journey sounds like a potentially very successful film that would touch the hearts and thoughts of millions and stimulate some healthy discussion about the obstacles you face

    Get in touch if you would like help drafting a script and we’ll get it rocking on kickstarter :)

  28. says

    Hi everyone,

    First I want to say how floored I am by all of your replies. This is such a warm, engaged, thoughtful community here and I’m thrilled to partake. I’m especially grateful to those of you who have visited my website and gotten engaged there too. The rest of you are quite welcome :-)

    I’ve replied to each of you individually below. Would love to continue the conversation!

    Taylor Jacobson

    @Daniel, thanks for sharing your story, and @Valerie & @James for your suggestions. Your story, in turn, has made me think. Of course only you know if you made the right decision, but I am personally blown away by the courage and generosity you had to go through that struggle on behalf of your parent.

    @Vincent, great to hear that you’ve got ever more clarity on your definition of success. The money vs. happy journey is quite a conundrum to wrestle as well – best of luck ☺

    @Debbie, thanks so much for sharing. I’m so grateful that my own mother made a similar choice ☺

    @Thomas Joe, rock on, thanks for sharing!

    @Bia, thank you!

    @J, I really appreciate your story, and can feel how much pain you are in. If you heard it yet haven’t yet, I highly recommend Pema Chodron’s audio recording, Getting Unstuck.

    @joy, sounds like “authenticity” to me. Love it. Thank you.

    @Amanda Gray, thanks for adding your definition!

    @Andrea, @Nancy Blacketer, you are undoubtedly right, that we cannot do everything 100%, and over time, the number of “things” does not shrink on its own ☺ I think one of the most important elements of actually achieving our personal definitions of success is to choose those things rather than letting them choose us.

    @Tanvi, that is one of my favorites – thanks for adding it in here!

    @Angela, the point you raise about role models is an important one. I think it’s possible to see both sides as a blessing. Having role models is so supportive but can also overshadow our intuition. Not having them makes us feel alone and lost and doesn’t necessarily teach us about intuition either, but may create more of a vacuum for us to chart our own course. Either way, we need a lot of self-love to trust our intuition.

    @kim, you’re welcome, and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I am a big believer in the power of defining success as an experience or feeling.

    @Karen, thanks for your sharing your inspiring attitude. I concur, the little stuff is actually the big stuff ☺

    @Clairey, thanks for sharing, that is a beautiful definition.

    @Lilly, those are 3 powerful points. I am always striving for those as well. Thank you.

    @Carrie, I appreciate you drawing a contrast to one of my points to show how personal the definition truly must be.

    @Susan, thank you. Defining success that way – raising incredible kids – is one way to ensure we all benefit from your success!

    @Maureen, it is incredible how much peace comes in the removal of false dualities. How would we relate to one another if we broke down the perceived boundaries? I get chills ☺

    @Winston, right on! Thanks for sharing!

    @Sieglinde McTigue, I love this! Reminds me of M. Scott Peck’s concept of love as work.

    @Michelle, congratulations – that is amazing and so awesome. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

    @David Rapp, this brought tears to my eyes. I felt so connected to you, reading your statement, sharing in the experience of lovingly embracing and celebrating everything that makes us human.

    @Maggie, that is SO wonderful. My very best wishes for your new love ☺

    @Beverly, thank you for all the gifts you are giving us every day! I really believe that this kind of attitude about giving without expecting anything in return is far-reaching beyond our ability to comprehend. I always like to say, good karma is great business, because what we give comes back to us ten-fold.

    @Jonathan, I am stealing this quote. Hell yes.

    @Braja Patnaik, beautiful, thank you for sharing!

    @Amandah, thank you! This brought a smile to my face. Staying light-hearted about the whole affair makes it all that much sweeter.

    @Shivam, your suggestion is appreciated!

    @ssreddy 555, I love it. I’m sending the vibrations right back.

  29. says

    Eek, this is great! Everyone at some point falls into the trap of validating themselves using the measures of success that society shows us. The whole validation cycle is ghastly and I fell for it hook, line and sinker! It’s been a long road to train myself out of that way of thinking and operating, and it’s so refreshing now to be reading blogs and being connected to people who are awake and choosing a new paradigm for living and loving. Love your suggested new measures of ‘success’. My top two measures for success are: “I am being who I really am?” and “Am I doing what I truly love”. As long as I can put hand on heart and answer yes, then I feel complete and at peace.
    Thanks for another great post.
    Bernadette :)

  30. Siddesh says

    To live a life without any regrets, a life filled with honesty, integrity and a sense of purpose makes a life worthwhile. To shed your ego, pride and letting go, helps you go a long way in making you content with life and leads you to the state of happiness. Most of the comments and the content of the article point us to little things which we can accomplish without much effort, but only if we knew them earlier or was there someone to guide us. The best experiences are those we experience live, those lessons stay with us throughout. We evolve as humans, let our today be better than our yesterday and tomorrow even better. Good luck and God bless!!

  31. Phyllis Loya says

    A person’s definition of success will be changed by life altering events…for some it will be a minor change and for others a monumental change. Prior to 2005 I defined success in terms of being a good mom and of reaching educational and professional goals. Dance was a passion so I had a few competition goals as well. The murder of my youngest son, a police officer killed in the line of duty, changed everything. Some days success was getting out of bed and facing the world when it was so much easier not to take that small step. As I have learned to redefine my life, I am also redefining what success means to me. I no longer have the desire, the ability, or license to practice my profession. My energies are now focused on advocacy for victims and being a warrior for justice. Happiness is a state of mind for me and I can never be happy with a murdered child, but I can feel moments of joy; success is finding more and more of those moments to revel in life, to delight in my grandchildren and my older son, to treasure my friends, to have a great dance, to fight for my fellow victims. Success is never giving up on life.

  32. Ava says

    I have to add that, feeling like we have to pursue what society currently tells us we have to do, like “find your passion”, “set goals”, etc. doesn’t work for everybody. Trying to “find my passion” has been a terrible and misleading goal for me — I don’t seem to have one, other than my family! It was so much pressure and had me going around in circles for years.

    Now, I’m aiming for “try things that sound fun” and my inspirational word is “Try” — that’s all!

    I wonder if “define success” is the same kind of thing. Setting ourselves up for something, and feeling like a failure if we don’t make it, even though it’s our own definition. Although the journey of thinking about it is definitely worth it. Our answer may only be, living each day as well as we can. Hence, I appreciate the quote from Amandah, “I show up in my life every day.” That is actually difficult for me to do, hence my easy to remember “Try”.

    And great support, Shivam! I also appreciate Andrea’s reminder to re-evaluate as we go through life stages.

  33. says

    I discovered my mission statement a couple years ago – Be the man I was meant to be.

    Success for me means living that mission statement. By stepping into who I am, accepting that and making the most of the talents, gifts and abilities I have been given is my personal definition of success. I tend to agree with Phyllis that the definition changes as life goes on. Sometimes, it is just getting out of bed, other times it is a career move or a profitable business move.

    Whatever it is, it is doing the most possible for the moment.

  34. says

    Success is measured by standing in your truth and following the intuitive sense which will allow you to follow on your path and journey of what is right for you. Be honest, be true, be free.

  35. says

    “Have you recently listened to someone else’s story without talking about yourself” I love this line, I think is the best benchmark for measuring up one’s success

  36. says

    @Bernadette, thanks so much for the kind words. I’m so glad you’re part of this community too!

    @Bruna T, thank you for sharing!

    @Arete Dreamer, amen!

    @Siddesh, you’re so right – shedding ego and valuing little things seem closely tied, don’t they.

    @Hannes Uys, thanks for commenting!

    @Phyllis Loya, thank you so much for sharing your story. What an incredible battle you are fighting to find happiness. I’m so glad that this journey has led you to advocate for others and give of yourself. Thank you.

    @Ava, your point about “finding your passion” is such an important one. I’ve compiled some of my favorite resources that deal with the nuance of this issue in the free download on my blog ( If you have trouble finding it please let me know! Would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

    @Mike Martel, right on! Thanks for sharing.

    @Anne Marie Foley, so glad you emphasized the importance of following intuition. Thank you!

    @jerry, thank you ☺

  37. says

    Great post Angel. It is so critically important for us to define success on our own terms. So many people strive hard only to achieve things that really don’t matter to them.

    In my latest blog series I give some practical tips on finding one’s personal definition of success:

  38. Ash says

    Success for me is achieveing your absolute greatest potential with the time you have. I have the belief that we were all given this beautiful gift of life and it would be a waste to not fill each day with things we enjoy and by learning and continually improving ourselves.

    I have a battle with myself constanty that I am trying to get over with defining my success in comparison to what everyone else has done or is doing. But in reality, as long as I am happy and feel fulfilled that is all that matters, and is my definition of success.

  39. Grace says

    For myself, success is defined by looking forward to my dying day and asking myself one question:

    Whose lives were made better by you?

    Everyone has greatness in them. Yes, even murders, rapists, ‘crazy people,’ molesters (I do waver on this to be honest.. millstone..). We’ve all been through some sh*&… It’s my observation people don’t each other in the eye. If they did, they would catch a glimpse of what’s inside.

    Asking isn’t difficult. Strategic questions prove useful at times. I reserve those for the angry and shut off girls God brings into my life. Simple questions are best. May I help you? Is there any I can do to help? And my favorite…..

    How are you?

    Not “what’s up?!” or “what’s goin’ on man??!” …..No. If you know each other well, “How are you?” is the key that opens the door.

    Be intentional. Be kind. Smile. Be authentic. Listen with your heart, not just your ears. If you learn to do that, it’s like a veil being lifted… and you hear it all without it all being said. Love. Hug. Appreciate. Be willing to ruin yourself for the sake of someone you love…don’t leave their side.

    If you’re lucky, you will meet a kindred spirit at a crucial time in your life. When you meet yours, grab their hand, love them fiercely, pick them up when fall down, encourage them, see the beauty inside that person….don’t let go. Two are better than one. It’s okay to need that person. Don’t let go. I’ve got you. You’ve got me…. and by the way,

    How are you?

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