The Many Measures
If there ever was a common meaning of the word, the concept of success appears to have become increasingly a matter of opinion. We surveyed readers of The Atlantic for their definitions. Men, women, and every profession and generation answered the questions in ways that reflect unique definitions of success. But, the data converged in one fascinating conclusion: that, regardless of demographics, the great majority of our surveyed readers no longer define success in terms of financial and career achievement so much as the satisfactions of family life, personal growth, and emotional fulfillment.
Explore the responses. What you find might surprise you.Scroll ↓
When we asked our readers what words came to mind when they thought of success, the answers varied by generation.
Word Association by Generation
When all surveyed readers were asked if they felt successful
right now, three quarters of them said yes.
Breakdown by generation of those who feel successful
Ninety percent of our surveyed readers said success has
no universal definition.
Personal definitions of success
- “Success is
goals to the point
where one is free
- “Success means to
whether that be
- “Success means
to society without
integrity and focusing
on happiness without
stepping on others to
- “To have done what
will make the world
a better place for
all and especially
for your children.”
- “It means learning
how to do what
you want and
doing it well.”
The majority of our surveyed readers put “family life” first. Those who
defined success in terms of career or finances were in the minority.
Our readers’ measures of success in terms of their life priorities
“Success is having the means to make yourself and your family happy.”
Animal Shelter Owner
“Success is having attained your personal goals and being happy with your life now.”
“Money enough to enjoy time, time enough to enjoy money, and health enough to enjoy both.”
“Success is achieving the highest role in your career, with rewards and recognition of ability from your peers.”
Men and women differ slightly on where they find the most success – but the majority of both feel successful.
Percentage of men and women who feel successful in each life priority
Men and women have clear overlap in the ways they define
success, but some differences as well.
Word association by gender
Our surveyed readers feel most successful in their family lives,
while success in other life priorities increases with age.
Percentage of the generations who feel successful in each life priority
When asked which was most responsible for success—luck
or hard work—the vast majority said hard work.
The makings of success
For all the differences our survey uncovered,
a singular message came through:
Success is no longer defined primarily in terms
of career achievement or financial prosperity.
Among men and women, young and old, writers, retirees, homemakers, and engineers, success in the 21st century is most of all about satisfactions beyond the material—a loving family life, personal integrity, and other forms of emotional fulfillment. Among all our respondents’ definitions of success, the one that seemed to sum it up best came from a retired English professor: