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Success, Defined

Earlier this year, I went to a dinner hosted by a VC firm. The room was filled with professionals in the start-up ecosystem, including several founders of tech start-ups. I sat next to one of the founders and after chatting for a while about his company he started talking about my work with The Rivet Group.

Here is the gist of our conversation:

Founder: “So,” he said, “you must be a good judge of talent if you’ve made it your career.”

Me: (paraphrasing Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption) “I’ve been known to find good people from time to time.”

Founder: “So, who in this room do you think will be the most successful?”

Me: “How do you define success?”

Founder: “…”

I’m generally not one of those guys to answer a question with a question, but to me the definition of success is far from absolute. In the tech start-up world, the primary benchmark of success is becoming a “unicorn” and making the founder a billionaire in the process. Often lost in the details are things like making a profit, having a product or service people actually need, and if along they way they shaft their friends, investors, coworkers and the environment to get there.

As we talked, it became evident that he had concrete and specific goals to create a strong, growing, and stable company, that took care of their employees and customers. Coincidentally he was Veteran, and strongly believed in a servant-leadership model, which I think helped align his moral compass to a certain degree.

In our personal lives, family, society, social media, and Madison Avenue all work to help define success for us. We are bombarded with advertising for shiny new things. Social media is riddled with celebrity “influencers” pitching a lifestyle that people dive deep into debt to try to emulate.

The common benchmarks of success are money, fame, power, title, social standing, material things. Those measuring sticks can be misleading or a façade masking fraud - Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein and Lance Armstrong were all smashing successes – but few would choose to follow their path.

Throughout history, many of the most widely respected industrialists, innovators, politicians, coaches, and celebrities have a mess of a home life, with failed marriages, neglected children, personal bankruptcies, and few real friends.

At the heart of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite Christmas movie) is this very question – how do you define success? Henry Potter is a successful man by most metrics – he’s dominated his market, and created tons of wealth. George Bailey is bound by a certain ethical code, a duty to his family, employees, and community - and sacrifices his dreams and ambitions time and time again at the altar of duty. As the movie wraps up – we see that George Bailey is really the richest man in town.

How do YOU define success? This is a big question. Is it professional success? Is it fostering successful relationships with friends and family? Is it treating everyone with kindness and respect? Is it buying that fancy sports car?

It’s worth spending some time deciding what is important to you. Are your goals to become financially independent? Raise your children to be responsible productive adults? Make senior partner? Own that dream car you always wanted? The next step is to plan the journey to get there and building a road map to your own definition of success.

I’d argue that the journey is more important – how you get to your goals is what will define your legacy and legend.

Keep Riveting and Happy Holidays.

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