How we measure success defines what success looks like

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what success looks like and how can I have healthy relationship with my current and future metrics of success. While reading Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity I came across this passage that discusses how different “domains” have very different ways of measuring success and that those “domains” in which success is more easily quantifiable (typically the natural sciences) tend to have an easier time getting funding from universities and policymakers and coverage from the media.

This got me thinking about how success is in large part defined by how we measure it. For example, money or accumulated wealth to be specific tends to be a good measure of success for many people because it is easily quantifiable. Happiness, on the other hand, tends to be really hard to measure for most people. I think that this is in part what motivates people to use measurable metrics like money as a proxy for less measurable ones like happiness.

From what I’ve been able to gather success can be measured in one of two ways. First, it can be measured along a continuum. For example, in the bank I $1M, $10M, $25M, etc. Presumably depending on the type of metric the more you have the better. Second, success can be binary. You either have something or you don’t. For example, you can have a degree from a fancy university or you don’t, you can have a great job title at big company or not, etc. These markers help us understand two things. First, whether we have accomplished the goals that we’ve set for ourselves and second where do we stand relative to our peers. This might sound like a conceited way of approaching success and life in general but I belief that’s true. We are inherently social creatures that love to compare things including ourselves.

Now lets go back to the main point in this essay. I have realized that the way we measure success defines how success looks like. If this is the case then am I capturing the right metrics for success? Am I not working towards something simply because I don’t have the framework or the language to articulate and measure it?

The first step I took in answering this question was figuring out what does success looks like? And that’s quite hard to do to begin with. However, I boiled down to the following points:

I am successful if I am:

  1. Happy
  2. Healthy
  3. Helpful (to others)

I don’t know if this is the right way to approach this issue and quite frankly I can’t think of anything that I would want to accomplish that I am not currently measuring. Then again that’s probably a consequence of the phenomenon that I am trying to describe.

Having said so, I can think of a quick experiment to measure item number 1. Happiness is quite hard to measure and the way I currently work towards being happier is by doing the things that bring me joy. Nevertheless, what if I track how happy I am at the end of every day and then see how that number (say on a scale of 1-10) trends over time. This is not a perfect experiment because how I feel in any given day ebbs and flows and I won’t be able to capture that in one number at the end of the day. Furthermore, how I felt the day day before will impact my expectations (call it baseline happiness) for the next day. In psychology, this is known as framing effect.

However, I think that tracking this # over time can provide me with some interesting insight as to why I react to certain events in certain ways and whether I am happier or not over time.