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The Many Measures
of Success

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.

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When we asked our readers what words came to mind when they thought of success, the answers varied by generation.

Word Association by Generation

confidence

creativity

happiness

opportunity

balance

stability

progress

fulfillment

motivation

Leadership

Recognition

Respect

achievement

accomplishment

vision

education

knowledge

choice

influence

responsibility

comfort

Freedom

Growth

Independence

stability

integrity

appreciation

dedication

positive

engaged

perseverance

health

productive

Thriving

Onward

Satisfied

service

useful

loved

fulfilled

completion

comfort

compassion

esteem

peace

Contribute

Community

Impact

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

82%

77%

All respondents

Ninety percent of our surveyed readers said success has
no universal definition.

Personal definitions of success

  • “Success is
    achieving one's
    goals to the point
    where one is free
    from worry.”
  • “Success means to
    achieve greatness,
    whether that be
    financially, socially,
    or physically.”
  • “Success means
    making contributions
    to society without
    compromising
    integrity and focusing
    on happiness without
    stepping on others to
    get there.”
  • “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.”
  • Homemaker
  • Electronics Professional
  • Campaign Advisor
  • Attorney
  • Writer

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.”

    27, Female,
    Animal Shelter Owner

  • “Success is having attained your personal goals and being happy with your life now.”

    71, Male,
    Retiree

  • “Money enough to enjoy time, time enough to enjoy money, and health enough to enjoy both.”

    56, Male,
    Software Engineer

  • “Success is achieving the highest role in your career, with rewards and recognition of ability from your peers.”

    36, Male,
    Product Developer

60%

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

  • Independence
  • Passion
  • Respect
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Achievement
  • Fulfillment
  • Family
  • Recognition
  • Satisfaction
  • Comfort
  • Influence

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

80%

Millennials

80%

Gen Xers

80%

Baby Boomers

80%

Elders

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.

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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:

MORE FROM TIAA: SEE THE DIFFERENT WAYS THAT PEOPLE DEFINE SUCCESS