What defines success? The problem with our humanity — not just our culture but our human species — is that we have a tendency to think the way we see success is the way success is supposed to be defined. If your definition of success is, “he who dies with the most toys wins,” and you’ve collected all the toys, then you’re successful. If you see success as impact or influence, the person who collects all the toys won’t have any respect for your definition.

Last week, I wrote this piece: Unwrapping the Gift: The Wisdom & Example of Damar Hamlin. In it, I remarked that it’s a special person who has the courage to unwrap their gift, pick it up, and use it, especially at the age of 24, like Hamlin.

What’s amazing about Hamlin is not that he became successful (though that certainly is a huge achievement). What I find truly stunning is that against all odds, he possessed an uncanny clarity of success at such a remarkably young age. He recognized his gift and put it to use. That, in my opinion, is his greatest success.

Surprising as it may sound, people my age, pushing sixty, often don’t have that same clarity of success. 

A few weeks ago, I met with an old friend of mine who used to be part of the life coaching world. Several years ago, he decided to pivot from coaching to pursue a career in real estate. He recently decided to return to coaching and wanted to reconnect with me and talk about the coaching industry. 

It was interesting listening to him. We talked about the path of curiosity and learning in law enforcement, an industry I’ve recently started working with. He asked, “How are you becoming successful in that industry when you’re not a cop, he asked?” (Side note: If you’re wondering the same, keep an eye out for an upcoming post on exactly that question.)

During our conversation, it occurred to me that he didn’t have any sense of clarity of success. Here was this fellow coach who, like me, had decades of life and experience behind him, yet he seemed utterly unmoored and unsure of what it would take for him to feel successful in his own life.

And then there’s Damar Hamlin. Incredible, the contrast, right?

For Hamlin, the thought of being able to improve his community and lift people up was a powerful thing. His conviction to give back and remain connected to the place that raised him speaks to his understanding of success. 

Does he take great pride in his accomplishments on the football field? I’m sure he does. But is that the ultimate measure of success for him? Probably not.

I’ll say it again: the thing that makes Hamlin remarkable is how clearly he understood his definition of his success, from the very beginning. 

For him, success wasn’t attending the biggest-name school. He didn’t have to go to Notre Dame to feel successful. 

Success wasn’t making it to the NFL, though he was so thrilled to be drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2021 that he told reporters after the draft, “I’m willing to do whatever just to be a contributor on the team, man. I don’t care if it’s I gotta pass out water at halftime…No matter what it is, I’m willing to do it. I don’t got no pride.”

Hamlin was drafted in the sixth round, the 212th overall pick. He didn’t mind. Because his idea of success doesn’t require being a first-round draft pick. 

His clarity of success is so vivid. And to have that at 15, 18, 24 years old? That, to me, is the most remarkable thing. There are a lot of good football players out there, but there aren’t a lot of people who have that level of clarity about what their successful life looks like.

On a personal note, I can relate a lot to Hamlin’s vision of success, especially when it comes to police work. For me, the thought of being able to positively influence that issue is pretty powerful. (More on this in a future blog post.)

Here’s another example of an “unconventional” clarity of success: Bono. Yes, the rock star.

I recently finished Bono’s memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. (The audiobook is fabulous, by the way; Bono narrates it himself.)

U2 is regarded as “one of the most successful rock bands in history.” But by what measure? If you look up a list of the most successful rock bands ever, I’d guess they rank third. Maybe. But by most units sold, they rank much lower. (As it turns out, depending on the criteria, CNN ranks U2 #11, Parade puts them at #52, and Business Insider ranks them #16. So the jury is still out.) 

For Bono, success isn’t merely a matter of records sold. His success is ultimately much more tied up in his influence and the legacy of activism that he’ll leave behind — for him, no amount of records sold could ever compare to that.

So are leaders born or made? I still say, “Yes.” I think you’re born with the gift. But as I’ve said before, it’s a special person who has the courage to unwrap their gift, pick it up, and use it. That is exceedingly rare. I’ve met plenty of people that have had the courage to unwrap the gift — until they discovered what it was and what was being asked of them as a leader — and then they set it back down. Or wrapped it back up and made it a white elephant gift. 

If you’re one of the fortunate few who uses their gift and understands their own definition of success, I applaud you.

If you’re still figuring out how to do any of that, I’d love to help you. Here and now is a perfect place to start.


Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash