Have you ever felt successful, only to be told that in the eyes of many people, what you saw as success was not really a success at all?
Maybe for you that could mean managing to put food on the table, or send your child to college. Things that may seem like a minor accomplishment for most people could feel like a huge feat for you. Or what about the opposite, being praised by others for something you achieved that they saw to be a huge success, but you felt as though you had let yourself down, and hadn’t done as well as you could have?
Maybe you ran a marathon, which is seen as a huge success for a lot of people, but you didn’t finish as fast as you think you could have.
Sometimes we know we worked so hard on something, that even if it doesn’t turn out as well as we hoped it would, knowing how much effort we put into it is a success on its own.
But other people don’t see that effort, and if they do they don’t always care about it. And sometimes we make the mistake of letting other people define our success when we should be deciding for ourselves what makes us feel successful. As a business owner, or anyone who has a busy schedule, you can probably understand the feeling of being on a treadmill. You work and you work so hard and it feels like, from the outside, you don’t look as though you are going anywhere. But in that never-ending cycle of work there are many small successes that other often fail to acknowledge and go unrecognized or praised and can lead to you feeling unsuccessful.
The Problem: What is Success?
Success is a word that’s definition can change depending on who you ask, or what you are using to measure it. I browsed through multiple online dictionaries for the definition of “success,” and I didn’t expect to find that almost all of them had one meaning on the word success linked to money – though I wasn’t particularly surprised by this discovery either. When you think of someone who is considered successful by a large number of people, why is it that they are seen this way? What is it that makes them successful?
Is it money? Fame? Strong morals? And does everyone view these as markers of success?
Is a man who inherited billions from his father as successful as a man who made that money himself starting his own business? Is a man who made that money himself in his own business but exploited people in the process as successful as someone who made the same amount in his own business that didn’t exploit people? And could a man with very little money, who spent his life helping others, be more of a success than any of the other men described? Really – how to be successful in business is subjective – and it won’t look the same for any two people.
That depends who you ask, and WHAT you are using to define and measure success.
We don’t all evaluate by the same rubric when it comes to defining the success of anything or anyone. And because of that, we often don’t know the effectiveness or real success of many charities, businesses or projects we hear about – or if they are successful in the way we personally measure success.
An organization called GiveWell has recognized this issue and created a site that evaluates the effectiveness and success of many non-profits on one defined set of criteria that is prominently published on their site. This allows people to browse through various charities to see how successful they are and also allows people to make sure that the criteria GiveWell uses to define the success of these charities is something that they agree with.
Underlying Cause of Problem: How do you evaluate Success?
The existence of GiveWell is important and useful because we often evaluate the wrong things when evaluating success or compare apples to oranges or when looking at success measures that others have defined – don’t know what is being considered successful. For example, if you think back to you school days and you received a C on your project when you friend received a B – how did you feel? Probably not to great, and like you were less successful than your friend. But what if you had received a D last project and you friend received an A on their last project. This means you improved and they worsened. So looking at it this way, maybe you were the more successful one. It really depends how you choose to evaluate it. And in a subject such as Visual Art, do we even agree with the criteria that is used to grade us?
Another example of this is in a post I wrote a few months ago called No Profits – What Small Businesses and Non-Profits Both Need to Change where I referenced a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta called The Way we Think About Charity is Dead Wrong. In this talk Dan Pallotta discusses the issues with measuring the success of charities on how little of all donations they manage to spend on overhead (fundraising, salaries, operating expenses etc.). But this is not the most effective way to measure the success of a charity because sometimes by investing money in overhead, charities can grow the small donations they receive to a much larger amount of money that can then support the cause.
Here is a statement from GiveWell’s website that addresses this, and how they strive to act against it:
“Unlike charity evaluators that focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.”
There seems to be a general rubric that people use to evaluate the success of charities that ranks “what percent of all donations goes directly to the cause” which we have just shown to be problematic. The same is true for businesses – that there is a general rubric people use to evaluate the success of a business that ranks “how much profit do they earn” at the top. This too, is problematic. Although businesses do need to make money, they have other responsibilities, largely social ones that should be regarded as of high importance when evaluating the success of a business.
The Solution: Should everyone be evaluated by the same criteria?
Whatever you are trying to do, there are measures of effectiveness. Whether you are an Olympic swimmer where you are evaluated by speed but also by form, or you are salesman evaluated by the number of sales you make and how much money you brought into the company. In situations like these you will likely be graded by the same success measures as your peers who are performing the same tasks (assuming there are no unfair biases). But as I mentioned before with the example of the school grades, although there are general standards of evaluation in almost everything we do, there are also personal measures of success. The Olympic swimmer who placed 5th in his first year could feel like more of a success then the Olympic swimmer who placed in 2nd and fell from his first place ranking.
Although having standard measures of success are useful in comparing people or businesses, not everything needs to, or should be evaluated by the same criteria.
The world may view your business as more of a success the more money you make, but you personally might feel like more of a success the more people you help or the happier your employees are.
It is up to you to figure out which measures of success work best to represent the success of your own business or project, and use those to evaluate your progress, regardless of what the standard rubric is.
GiveWell did a fine job defining their own measures:
- Strong evidence of positive impact on people’s lives.
- Secondly, highly cost-effective activities. We seek charities that provide high “bang for the buck,” in terms of changing many lives (significantly) for relatively little money. Available cost-effectiveness estimates involve a great deal of uncertainty and approximation; we place limited weight on estimated cost-effectiveness, but we are mindful of extremely large differences.
- Room for more funding. It isn’t enough to identify a strong program; we seek to identify strong programs that can productively use more donor funding. Transparency and accountability to donors. Recommended charities must be willing to share enough in-depth information about their work that we can assess them on the above criteria.
At Mirasee we have some of our own as well:
- Impact on people’s lives, satisfied customers and seeing our customers succeed in their own businesses
- Happy employees
- Future ambitions and plans
- Transparency and accountability in everything we do
- Learning and improving from the past
- And like most businesses, being profitable, too 😉
Implementing the Solution: How would you like to be evaluated?
Now it’s your turn to figure out how you want to evaluate your own success or the success of your business or project. You can come up with measures that evaluate the success of your business as a whole, like the examples I just gave you above – but also remember that it is important to have metrics that evaluate the success of smaller individual projects or aspects of your business.
Here are some resources that might give you some ideas or help you figure out what is important to evaluate:
- Designing Effective Business Metrics – Strategic Communications
- How to Measure Your Way to Startup Success – KISSmetrics
- Metrics: You Are What You Measure – MIT
- An Appropriate Use of Metrics – Martin Fowler
- 7 Tips On Building Your Business With Better Metrics – Forbes
Let us know what metrics are important to you or your business in the comments!
Robyn Crump is the Experience Lead at Mirasee, and has been with us since August of 2012. Most of her time is spent working on Audio Visual Material, corresponding with JV partners, and reaching out to new students.