I Asked 50+ Insanely Successful People What Success Means To Them.
What I Learned, And What Shocked Me.
Around two years ago, I decided to start a little experiment. Something I would commit to for the long-term, and have some interesting results to show for it at the end.
The mission was simple. Find the world’s best and brightest and ask them the same thing: “What does success mean to you?” Over 50 people and a surprising amount of time later, it’s finally time to share my findings through some of the most pivotal stories in the journey.
**Side Note: Getting an appointment with these guys is a lost cause, so looking for them took me to the ends of the Earth. Huge gatherings, film festivals, concerts, online forums, Twitch streams — you name it.
Then, I found a way to slip “the question” in without them even realizing a thing. Most of them, at least. Pretty smooth, if I do say so myself.
That’s why a few of the people I’ll be mentioning are going to stay anonymous, since I didn’t get a chance to ask them for permission. But don’t worry — you might still recognize a couple of familiar names.**
Anyway, let’s get started.
Doing The Right Thing?
“Success? For me, it’s becoming the painter that I always wanted to be. Almost no one was doing art in my country at the time. I kept going because I wanted to be the first to show others it was possible. My heart pulled me in that direction.” — Russian Artist (Chose To Stay Anonymous)
On a chilly 2017 afternoon, I had a chance encounter with someone interesting. It was chance because I never meant for it to happen. It was an encounter because I didn’t get to talk to him for more than a minute or so. After all, he seemed like he enjoyed his own company.
Still, a renowned Russian artist sitting right next to me at a public library got me curious.
He definitely looked the part — with frazzled hair and a Hawaiian shirt that was long enough to be a tripping hazard. Not to mention how he hunched over his computer and kept looking around like someone was out to assassinate him.
To be honest, looking at him made me inch away in my seat.
But the librarians seemed to know who he was. So did some of the seniors who happened to be reading at the weekly book club.
Unlike basketball players or businesspeople, there’s not a whole lot of household name in art. If one had any recognition in a foreign country, they must be special.
That’s what made me introduce myself and ask him “the question”.
I wish I could say that he stopped in his tracks and that we had an insightful conversation about life. That didn’t happen — but he did answer. While hobbling out of the building in an almost artistic style of its own, he said:
On any other occasion, “following” a stranger would be a hard no. But in the name of journalism, I guess you call those things walk-and-talks.
So, as I followed this supposed artist with no destination in sight, he began to continue where he left off:
“I wouldn’t consider myself an artist. I’m just a person trying to be an artist who happens to be popular. At one point, I valued success. I valued it because I wanted my art to be something greater than myself. I believed it was the right thing to do.
That’s why I spent 25 years of my life trying to get there. Everything I did was to become what I saw as a real artist. Then I noticed that thinking about the future made me forget the most valuable thing.
I forgot how the journey of becoming an artist was the most valuable part. I was always so focused on what my next piece would look like that I never truly enjoyed the process of making a single one.
Even now, I haven’t reached my goal. And even if I did, the happiness would probably last me a few days and I’d aim for something even more out of reach. But I learned from that and grew from it. Now, I go where life takes me and don’t have a worry in the world.
I still don’t fit in to the the classic definition of success. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded yet. Other people just think I have.”
That took me by surprise. There I was expecting some remark like “I want my art to be able to connect with people or leave a legacy”. Instead, this artist gave me the other side of the coin — an alternative to the sparkly view of success you might be used to seeing.
And as easy as it would be to brush that away as a one-off comment, I’ve interviewed over 50 people. That artist’s view of success summed up what I heard from around 15 of them.
That’s when I started to notice something. I noticed that there’s a divide between how other people see our successes and how we see our own.
There’s no telling how many millions of people saw that artist’s paintings, or how many people looked up to him. Judging from that, the only way to describe him would be successful. But his success came from his moral compass — not where or how his paintings sold:
Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean success has to be defined by how many paintings you sell. You could be painting for another reason entirely.
Society set the bar miles away from where he did. The only reason he took up art was because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Talking to him confirmed the fact that success was internal. Something only he could define for himself. Something all of us have to define for ourselves. If his definition of success was different from society’s definition, it wouldn’t matter what others thought of his work. He’d still be a failure in his eyes.
But something lingered in my head even longer. How many of the people we consider successful even consider themselves successful? If they don’t, would they even count as successful?
Even though he didn’t answer the question I set out to answer, that artist nudged me just a little closer to the truth.
“Deciding that I should be doing what I enjoy. I think that decision let me see beauty of physics.” — Rainer Weiss, Nobel Physics Laureate.
Fast forward about a year later, and you’d see me sitting in a room with my best shirt on for a Zoom call. Pants? I was wearing the highest quality pajamas I had.
Through an accelerator program I was part of, a small group of us got to meet Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Rainer Weiss. Remember when scientists first detected gravitational waves? The system they used to detect them was his idea.
Looking back, it’s like all these opportunities just fell into my lap, but hey — I wasn’t complaining. For all I cared, what I had coming was going to be the Zoom call of all Zoom calls. And I was more than ready.
So after half an hour of him talking about physics and life, the floor opened up for Q&A. On cue, I typed “the question” into the chat at breakneck speed and hit enter. Then, almost instantly, Weiss responded:
“ Success…is complicated. It’s different for everyone. But as long as I’m working on things that matter and love what I do, that’s success for me. When my team was working on experiments every day, our end goal wasn’t to detect gravitational waves.
Sure, detecting gravitational waves was fantastic, and receiving the Nobel Prize was an unbelievable honour as well. But what we really lived for was each day. If something was wrong in a circuit or an experiment, the only thing running in our heads was how we could fix it.
If we fixed it, it was enough of an achievement to celebrate about. We never sat around thinking “Oh, I can’t believe we haven’t detected gravitational waves yet. What’s the meaning of all this?”
Every single one of us genuinely enjoyed the present, and time flew by. A couple of decades later, we detected gravitational waves and had the time of our lives doing it.”
As inspirational as it was, Weiss’ answer left me thinking. I interviewed twenty four people before him, and there was no doubt that they were all successful. But Weiss’ point ripped apart any connection I saw between the people I met.
On one hand, success seemed to come at the cost of someone’s happiness. Looking too hard for a galaxy came at the cost of missing all the stars that made it. While the artist from our first story followed the intense pull of his moral compass, people like Weiss put fun first.
People like him were living proof there was another way to look at things. To them, long-term success didn’t come from focusing their actions on a long-term goal. It came from finding success in every step along the way.
What if everyone else was looking at success the wrong way? Or what if he was looking at things wrong?
It was just like Weiss said — success is complicated.
If there’s a right or wrong definition, who knows? But as soon as everything started to get blurry, another piece entered the metaphorical puzzle.
Helping, Sharing, Or Caring?
“I want people to watch my movies. Not for my ego or money, but I want them to watch my movies and feel that same awe and rush I felt while creating them.” — George Lucas, Director Of Star Wars
Even though this meeting might not have been unconventional or fateful as the last few, it was one of the most exciting. This is the story of first person I met who fell into a category I never saw before. His name was George Lucas.
Yeah — the guy who directed Star Wars. I know, right?
Everything began to unfold near the end of my perilous journey. One day, when I was scouring the internet for successful person #44, I landed on a jackpot — Twitter.
Now I find it painfully ironic. After putting all that effort to meet them in person (only to get rejected most of the time), I finally discovered what celebrity AMAs were.
For all you unenlightened folk, AMAs are short for “ask me anything's”. They’re a special mode of communication where anyone online can ask celebrities…anything. For wannabe journalists like me, they’re about as rare as double rainbows and unicorns.
So you best bet that I was hot on his trail when THE George Lucas put out the tweet I’d been anticipating for weeks. And while I wasn’t the first to the scene, I was in early. After that, you know the drill.
I typed in “the question” into the ever-growing thread of replies. “This is it,” I thought. If he answered, he would be, hands-down, the most popular person I met. Ever. Also, the bragging rights would be priceless.
And on cue, he responded:
“To me, success means becoming a person that uses their strengths to help others. For me, that means giving people the best movies I can make.”
That was it. Remember — this was Twitter. It has a 280 character limit to stop people from insulting each other in paragraphs.
But regardless, the meaning behind his message stretched way beyond that.
Even though success is internal, Lucas showed how it was possible to realize it in an external way. Using the example of our unnamed artist, his success came from doing what he thought was right.
To succeed, he’d have to create a world that aligned with his morals. And if he succeeded, he’d be the only person left fulfilled.
But for Lucas, satisfaction is something he can only feel with others in the equation. For people to gain something from his work — for people to leave a theatre with a feeling of awe they didn’t come in with. That’s his version of success, and it’s what drives him to make movies.
And with that, everything clicked.
Bonuses And Bloopers
Now, before we get into our grand finale, here were some of the wonkiest quotes, coolest facts, and most awkward situations along the way:
- In Toronto, I was stuck in an elevator with one person wearing a Star Trek costume and another wearing a Star Wars costume. As expected, a fist-fight broke out (luckily after the two got out of the elevator).
- You’d be surprised how many people have photos of Justin Bieber while he’s eating his breakfast
- “I just want to buy the New York Jets.” — Gary Vaynerchuck, Entrepreneur and CEO of VaynerMedia
- George Lucas’ nickname in high school used to be Luke. That was the story behind Luke Skywalker’s name.
- If Elon Musk wasn’t able to name his company Tesla, he would’ve used Faraday as a second option.
- “Great question…Wait, who are you again?” — Snoop Dogg, Rapper
So What Is Success?
Jokes aside, I was left a bit disappointed after it all. Going in, I was in search of a pattern. I was searching for an overarching vision of success that showed in everybody I met. A vision everyone could adopt to succeed.
But success doesn’t seem to work that way.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, fulfillment manifested itself differently in each person I met. And not only did everyone have a unique view, but their views of success kept changing and growing with them.
But even with the most varied views of success you could imagine, everyone I talked to succeeded. And that led me to form a theory — what if it didn’t matter how you defined success?
Frankly, I didn’t want that to be true.
If it was, it would mean I wasted two years trying to make out a pattern behind completely random views. It would mean I spent two years trying to answer a useless question. And in a way, that’d be right.
How you see success has zero impact on whether you’ll actually succeed. But being surrounded by successful people for so long made me discover some of the things that did:
- Your meaning of success has to be worth more than anything to you. It could be a vision of the future, a dream, or even a person, but it has to be something you can’t afford to lose.
- The pursuit of that success has to keep you fulfilled. If not, you’ll quit at the slightest glimpse of resistance or struggle.
- Having the strength to start (and finish). A vital characteristic of successful people is how they execute on their ideas. You can’t wait for the stars to align to before you try reaching for them.
In such a massive melting pot of people, those three traits held everyone together. But in the end, it came from them walking wherever they wanted — in a path they chose for themselves.
And now that I’ve finally gotten to see the big picture, here it is:
Your meaning of success is nothing more than a measuring tape you can use to see how far you’ve come and how much further you need to go. As long as what you do makes you fulfilled, it’s hard to go wrong.
The money, the glamour and the fame were never it. Every one of the 53 people I interviewed was successful they moment they reached their goals. The same goes for you.
When you reach your goals, you’ll be just as much of a success as any of them. That’s all it comes down to. Why? Because you’re successful when you know you’ve succeeded. You get to decide what makes you a success.
So if you have to choose, you might as well choose something you want.
Thanks for reading.
I love following my curiosity. I also love being concise.