How do you define success for yourself? It’s a big question, I know. A few weeks back, I wrote a couple of posts on the wisdom and example of Damar Hamlin and clarity of success that help unpack this subject through the life and story of the Buffalo Bills safety. 

And it recently occurred to me that if Damar Hamlin hadn’t had a heart attack at the age of 24 in the middle of an NFL game, we likely wouldn’t know much about him. Because of his harrowing ordeal, we’ve had the privilege of taking a deep dive into the rest of his life — and how meaningful it has been, despite his young age — when we otherwise might never have known much about him beyond the role he played on the football field.

Folks like Damar Hamlin and Bono and Oprah and Steven Spielberg are household names. And we think, “How lucky they are!” 

But there are millions of people equally as successful, we just don’t know about them. And because we don’t know about them, we don’t think they exist. How many other seemingly “ordinary” people just like him are out there — absolutely remarkable yet still unknown to the wider world?

I recently read The Winners, the third book in a series by acclaimed Swedish author Fredrik Backman. And it got me thinking about success in terms of impact. 

The novel is set in northern Sweden where small-town life revolves around hockey. Hockey is life. One of the book’s central characters, Peter, was a talented hockey player who played in the NHL in North America for a whopping total of four games before sustaining a career-ending injury. He’s iconic, a hometown hero. But he doesn’t see it. He knows what he’s accomplished, but he’s lost touch — with all that he has done, the mistakes he’s made, and all the lives he’s touched. It’s a fascinating character study. 

Like Peter, we are prone to wrap up success as a singular thing, especially now. Kids today spend so much of their lives on social media, obsessing over getting enough likes, shares, followers, and “friends.” 

We’ve bought into this idea that success is somehow a measure of volume. But it’s not. It’s a measure of impact. Some people’s success impacts a lot of lives. Other people’s success impacts far fewer lives, but it touches them very deeply. And having 1,000 or 1,000,000 likes doesn’t mean you’ve impacted that many lives.

One of the hardest things in life is to define what success is for you and for me in a way that is meaningful. The biggest trap we fall into is comparison. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If not for comparison, we’d likely be so much better off. But the world no longer allows us to live without comparison because we can now see the whole world in the palm of our hands. It’s on our screens and right before our eyes 24/7.

When you’re tempted to be hard on yourself, when you’re struggling with comparison, remember this: we seem to only accept success as defined by the success that we can see. We might actually only see 10% of the people who are truly successful (the tip of the iceberg). We don’t see the other 90% because they have a lower profile (the rest of the iceberg below the surface). 

The same may be true for you. You may not be successful in the one measurement you seek — wealth, fame, number of likes — but  you might be missing the million ways in which you impact others and are indeed successful. Dale Carnegie said, “Success isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get.” It’s possible you are successful beyond your wildest imagination but are looking the other way and can’t see it. Just sayin’.

So, how DO we define success for ourselves? A great place to start is with self-acceptance. We have to silence the negative voices in our heads that convince us we’re not talented enough, worthy enough, effective enough, big enough, strong enough, smart enough, pretty enough…

That voice in your head is the biggest culprit. Tell it to go take a time-out, and recognize that like so many others out there, you already ARE successful. You’re a hero to someone. You’re making an impact.

You just might not recognize it yet.


Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash