Defining Success

Though neither a teacher or high school student, my typical day involves a lot of stories and tests.

I make software with designers and engineers and a large portion of my time is spent trying to define how that software should work. That means deciding what things to work on next (amazing new feature or super-annoying bug) and then figuring out what the end result will be.

First, we write a story. These take a number of different forms, but generally, it’s a short summary of the use case: When a customer updates a form, they want changes to be saved automatically so they don’t lose any information.

Or this slightly more fun example: When a customer visits the store on their birthday, they want to leave with a free cupcake so they know they are appreciated.

Then, we define the end result. This involves two different, but related questions: How do we know the work is done? And how do we know the feature is a success?

Whether or not the work is complete is where the tests come into play: Is the form saved automatically? What about in different browsers or when some of the information is invalid?

With the birthday story, this is pleasantly easy to determine: does the person have a free cupcake with them when they leave? Hopefully, yes!

Success, though is more complicated. Defining success means answering the question, What do we hope to accomplish by giving away cupcakes on birthdays?

Is the goal a happy customer that feels valued? If they don’t return in the next month, is it still a success? Do we hope to spark interest in cupcakes so people will buy more in the future?

What I’ve begun to realize is that our lives revolve around the same questions: What does success mean? What outcome am I hoping for? It’s what determines how we view our work, conversations, writing, learning, cooking, volunteering, and even relationships.

What is success for this job? Is it rent, relationships, advancement, notoriety? If success is serving the organization and furthering its mission, then it’s that much easier to have a lower profile and paycheck for a season.

What does success mean in college? Perhaps it's a degree from a prestigious school or a well-paying career. It might be exposure to new ideas and perspectives or exploring the boundaries of who you are.

What is success for this creative project? Maybe it’s attention or potential riches. Or maybe it’s sharing something with others or getting better at a certain skill. Or it might simply be starting and finishing something that means the world to you.

There are a lot of voices telling us what success is in our careers, relationships, education, and most everything else. So often, the source of our struggles and frustrations is when we let others define success for us.

National Novel Writing Month cleverly changes the goals of writing a novel from Become a best-selling author loved by millions to Write 50,000 words in a month. The former stops many books before they’re started. The latter is eminently achievable. It doesn’t have to be good, no one has to buy it, and you can even keep it to yourself. Just finish it.

The result is thousands of novels that never would have been written otherwise. The only difference is a shift in perspective.

Define what success means to you and pursue it with great joy.