How Do You Define Success? Understanding The Meaning of Success

Those that think about success eventually experience the progressive realization that fear can actually be good, in the sense that it challenges you to explore new emotional places and push past your comfort zone to grow.

How To Answer “How Do You Define Success” (With Examples)

An employee’s definition of success can dictate their work performance and how well they’ll function on a new team. When an interviewer asks a candidate “how do you define success?” they’re evaluating your ethics, aspirations, and character.

An interviewer asks the question of how you define success to see if your goals are aligned with the organization. Your answer can show a lot about the employee you’ll be if they decide to hire you.

A candidate who tells a hiring manager that they define success by how much money they have in their bank account shows that their measure has little to do with quality or meeting goals.

Consider the implications of your answer before you give it. A candidate whose response demonstrates care and a strong work ethic will likely catch an interviewer’s attention.

Your own definition of the word success

Coming up with a definition of success that really reflects your personal values can be an exercise in unlearning! Here are some questions that can help you uncover your existing beliefs about success and whether or not they sit right with you.

When you’re able to identify originating thoughts around success – and if you feel that way right now – you can better focus on the things that matter to you. This is the way toward a truly successful life.

Personal questions to ask yourself

Another way you can create your own definition of success is to take five minutes to write down or draw as many words or images that represent success.

If you really want to dive deep into your feelings on this, do this same exercise for the word failure. Understanding how you view failure can also give you greater insight into what your own version of having a successful life looks like.

Be careful when chasing great success

Goals are healthy ways to make progress in life, but if you find yourself obsessing over being better, no matter how much work you put in, consider taking a step back.

Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the connections between happiness and wealth, says research has shown people ask themselves two questions when determining if they’re satisfied with something in their life:

Since many things that really matter in life, like being a spouse or parent, are hard to measure, Norton says people tend to look for other, more quantifiable ways of measuring success.

Money and business deals, zip codes, weight, grades, and more can begin taking priority because we can measure their success more easily than in other areas of our lives.

How to Answer "How Do You Define Success?”

The best approach to answering this question is to reference specific examples of your successes and explain the factors that contributed to your achievements. Then share how you applied what you learned from each experience to continue your professional development and generate positive results.

You could reference a time when you led a team that was able to deliver a product ahead of schedule. Describe the steps that were taken to ensure that high quality was maintained despite the accelerated schedule.

You could then share how you recognized each team member’s efforts and how you and your staff were able to implement the same technique with future deliverables. For example, you might say:

"I like to maintain a consistent level of productivity and take both my successes and failures in stride. I try to learn from both and apply that knowledge to future situations.

"For example, last August my sales team landed P&Z as a client. We were all elated, and I took my staff out for a celebratory dinner. I thought up a series of awards to recognize the roles that individual staff had played in the process and saluted members of the team.

"I then called a meeting for the next Tuesday to break down the process, and I identified several strategies that had contributed to our success. We discussed new targets, and six months later we landed another top consumer products client using some of the same tactics."

Success is about staying in motion

It can be challenging to maintain motivation, even with the help of motivational quotes for success at your fingertips. After all, enthusiasm isn’t something you simply pick up or put down. Doing something small every single day, however, helps move things more in alignment with your goals, which can lead you toward success.

For example, if your goal (or SMART goal) is to write a book because you see success as being a published author, but you only ever sit down to type when the mood strikes, you’re not going to get far.

How much success is too much success?

So, going back to our original example, say you finally get the inspiration to write, publish, market, and bestsell that book. You’ve never been so successful by your own definition.

However, instead of celebrating, embracing the achievement, or reflecting on all your hard work, you find a problem with the printer’s proof copy and convince yourself you’re a complete failure. This is another sign it’s to reassess what success means to you (yes, this can change with life experience!).

How to answer the ‘define success question’ in a job interview

This is probably one of the hardest questions to answer in any job interview. You may think how you define success may not be what the interviewers want to hear.

Just be sure to slant your answer about defining success toward the job in some relevant way. To use the same example from above, if you want to be an author and are interviewing at a publishing house, be sure to mention how this goal can benefit them, too.

In other words, sell your interviewer on the idea that your version of success means success for the whole company (and you have a plan in place to achieve it!).

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, how do you define success is a challenging question. But, by using the tips above, you can make sure you’re ready to nail it as your next interview.

Download our "Job Interview Questions & Answers PDF Cheat Sheet" that gives you word-for-word sample answers to some of the most common interview questions including:

Click Here To Get The Job Interview Questions & Answers Cheat Sheet

Co-Founder and CEO of Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at

His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *