By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

The ideas of how people perceive success and ambition have always piqued my interest. For a while, I equated success with making a lot of money, achieving big things and having an outsized impact on the world. 

But as I got older and joined the workforce, I recognized that the definitions of success vary widely, just as the word happiness evokes different meanings. 

Earlier this year, I asked the questions “How do you define success?” and “What does success look like for you?” in our annual Fearless survey. 

I sat on the responses for several months, waiting for the right time to share them. Now, with national conversations about “quiet quitting” – where you do the bare minimum of what’s asked of you at work – and larger reckonings with ambitions, I figured now is a good time as ever to dig them back out of the proverbial closet and see how they compare. 

Sixty people answered, with most responses falling within five themes. Below are select responses, some of which fall under multiple categories. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Having an impact 

  • Success is being able to make a positive impact and helping others create a life where they can do the same. 
  • If I can leave this world by making an impact on just one human being, then I have succeeded.
  • Success is being comfortable, proud, and engaged in the community and world around me. 

Feeling happy and healthy

  • Finding peace and happiness. 
  • My definition of success has changed since the pandemic. I now define success as being healthy and mentally happy. 
  • Success = joy. When I’m feeling fulfilled and joyful, I know I’m successful. And that doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes my career is the primary priority. Sometimes spending extra family time together is what fills my cup most. And sometimes it’s the selfish endeavors that give me the edge I need to find joy. Life changes, I adapt, but joy is my success. 
  • When you are truly satisfied with who you authentically are. Success is not dependent on others’ perceptions of you.
  • Happiness. Not everyone wants the same thing. 
  • Freedom. The freedom to make my choices without major constraint, the freedom to live the life I want rather than the one I’m forced to settle for, the freedom to use my time in the ways of benefit to myself and those around me and not merely to widget factories. Money is merely a means to that end. I do not define my success by the amount of toys I have and the self-imposed “status” others perceive that I have. Success is when I’m happy, balanced, excited and interested in life and don’t feel like I’m living it for anyone else and against my will. 

Achieving work-life balance 

  • A good work-life balance where I feel I am fulfilled. 
  • Raising successful, independent children and having a good marriage. 
  • My family and faith are the underlying meaning of success. If I am successful and a CEO but have no faith or family, I have nothing. Success to me is making a difference and contributing positively to my company, community and ultimately my family.
  • At this point, work-life balance and enough agency in my work to advance the mission of the nonprofit where I choose to work. I am fortunate that work is a choice at this stage in my life, not a requirement. I attribute this to living below our means for several years, hard work, strong performance, and some dang good luck. I understand that not everyone is willing or able to do this.
  • Success to me is not exactly my work legacy, it is what I leave with my family, what I am remembered for: “a caring mother, a wonderful friend,” etc.
  • Doing work I enjoy for pay I can thrive on, with time and trust to be away as well. 
  • Success means that I have what I need and that I enjoy the way I spend my time, both at work and in my personal time.
  • Loving my job and having enough time with my family. 

Accomplishing set goals 

  • Making money, achieving promotions, accomplishing goals, projects that make a difference. All of those combined make success.
  • Success happens when you give yourself into a project that may make you nervous or uncomfortable and you see the project through, whether it has the outcome you wanted or not. It’s pushing through and finding a will to survive and be your own biggest cheerleader.
  • It is the ability to grow in your environment, while also growing as an individual. To feel and see the achievements and growth that you have made. To become emotionally and financially stable and be able to continue to grow and achieve your goals. 
  • Doing what you want, doing it well and being recognized for it.

Being financially comfortable 

  • Treat others with kindness, feel worthwhile and respected. Achieve a socioeconomic level that provides dignity and comfort without gluttony and irresponsible excess. Follow the golden rule with joy. 
  • Professional success is doing a job I enjoy, working for a company I believe in and for people who treat me with respect. It is also a job that pays a justified rate for time given and value added regardless of gender. Financial success in my life means living a modest life with comforts and conveniences that allow my day-to-day to be predominantly stress-free and ability to pay all my bills and still have money to spare. 
  • Being able to meet one’s needs. Being financially secure. Being able to adequately juggle family, community, and work life. Being able to participate in things one wants to participate in. Having an adequate support network and close relationships with at least a few other people. 
  • Happiness in the workplace and pay reflective of years for services and work performed.