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May 29, 2014 at 1:00 AM

How to really tell when you are successful

“He who dies with the most toys wins.” Have you ever seen that bumper sticker?

It’s supposed to be funny because it points out how ridiculous it is to measure success in terms of size. But you know what? A lot of people measure success by the size of their houses, their bank accounts or even their social media following. They have never stopped to consider what success actually means, to them or to their lives.

Your work is, of course, an essential part of any definition of success. If your job does not fulfill you, you will feel like you’re wasting your time, and you certainly will not feel successful.

Have you ever defined “successful work”? Here’s my definition:

  1. Successful work is work you’ve mastered. When you are good at something, the very act of doing it gives you a charge. Nothing feels better, purer, truer than doing something you are supremely good at — and if that thing is the way you make your living, then you are one step ahead of many people in this world.
  2. Successful work pays you enough to live on, plus some for saving and some for fun. In studies, people who move from “not enough money” to “a little more than enough money” report a true, deep and permanent increase in happiness, and thus in their sense of success. Beyond this magic turning point, however, it seems that more money just equals more stuff. This is food for thought because, as you may have figured out, the happiness we get from stuff is temporary.
  3. Successful work reflects your values. A job in line with your core beliefs drives you, inspires you, energizes you and fulfills you. If you can feel positive about and proud of what you do every day, all day, you have attained success no matter how much that job pays.
  4. Successful work leaves the planet a better place. Some work, like building a bridge, results in permanent objects that can be seen and touched. Other work, like waitressing or teaching, has less-tangible outcomes. But any worthwhile work, done well and with love, increases the sum total of happiness in the world. The world surely needs that. And so do you.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at

More in Work Life Blog | Topics: career planning, finding your passion, work/life balance

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Blog contributors

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Randy Woods Writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Former contributors

Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.


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