I think there are two types of success, positive and negative.
Positive success is what you can see, what is tangible. Positive success is in your resume, on your bank balance, on your Wikipedia page.
- the amount of dollars you made
- the number of people you’ve served
- number of pounds lost, muscle gained
- number of miles run
- number of followers
- the degrees you earned
- the books you published
- the products you sold
Positive success is what the world means when people typically say ‘success’.
Negative success is what you have avoided achieving which is equally important and meaningful.
- The bad business decision that you could have made, but didn’t.
- Living and presenting as a healthy, functional person when you know that you are genetically predisposed to substance abuse.
- The lucrative career path that you did not take because you disagreed with the morality of the work.
- The big house that you’re not living in, because you got your priorities in order and decided you’d rather invest in your kids’ education and travel than a nice fancy house.
- The piles of money that you haven’t made because you prioritized spending time with your family and reading historical fiction.
- The fame that you don’t have because you prioritized the accumulation of wealth above public recognition.
- The person that you didn’t marry because the marriage would have been for the wrong reasons.
Some of these examples of negative success can be understood as the proverbial ‘bullet dodged’. (e.g. the bad business decision that you didn’t make.) But not all, since ‘bullet dodged’ implies an element of chance. Like you were lucky.
Some are fates you have deliberately and consistently worked to ward off. (e.g. not being a substance abuser.)
Others are courageous decisions in the direction of your values and priorities that perhaps conventional wisdom would have not have supported. (e.g. choosing family time over money. not marrying the person everyone said you should marry because you knew in your heart it wasn’t right.)
Others may only see your small house. Only you know that you are instead able to send your kids to college. The smallness of the house is a negative success.
Others may only see your small income. Only you know that you’re spending all your time with people you love, doing what you love. Your lack of wealth is a negative success.
Others may see you and say that you have a fairly average lifestyle. Only you know that you’re the first one to achieve ‘average’ in a long line of dysfunctional alcoholics who’ve never managed to hold down jobs. Your “only average” existence is a negative success.
For the absence of each wrong thing that you have managed to not do or become, you know that there is a combination of luck, earned wisdom, and hard work involved. Just as worthy of celebration as positive success. Sometimes more.