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Measuring Success… on Your Own Terms

CalliperHave 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:

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.

About Felicity Fields

Felicity Fields, a former Mirasee team member, is Customer Success Specialist and Community Manager at Ruzuku and offers Accountability Coaching on the side. Learn how she can help you get your shit done here.

19 thoughts on “Measuring Success… on Your Own Terms

  1. As a Kindle author I’m tracing on daily basis the sales statistics Amazon is providing. I have also a website (which I don’t consider a business) and neglecting tracing it’s statistics. Your post made me think I should install Google Analytics and change it.

  2. As a teacher, we use progress as a measure of success and I think you could apply that in business!
    Moving forward with your goals is success; reaching more customers today than you did tomorrow, is success; finishing that product and launching it is success…you get the picture?

    Most people cannot define success because they are not clear about their goals. They have dreams but no plan. We are all guilty of that on occasions but it is a poor business strategy to dream and never act!

    This is a good article to get people thinking and re=evaluating their definitions.

    The most important lesson I think is to define your own success and not worry about what others think!


    • Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for the input and I totally agree with it. I especially like what you wrote about people having dreams but no plans – and how bad that can be to a business!

  3. Thank you for an awesome topic and great questions asked in this article.

    Sarah, do you think that making known your definition of success to your audience/customers could help close the gap between their definition and yours?
    How important is that?

    Thanks for the links as well!

    • Livia

      I think that is a cool idea..but generally customers want to know that you define your success as THEIR success. Either because you have helped them to resolve a problem or that your advice has moved them forwards in some way.

      Perhaps as business owners we need to think of what our customers would see as the impact of our success first.

      Customer centred marketing is usually more successful!


  4. I’ve always felt that you can only compare yourself to yourself. I think it is something I picked up from working out.

    Therefore, I measure my success based on my previous success. I ask is it better than I did before? If so, success. In not, then I need to work on something.

    I suppose it’s really simplified, but sometimes it makes things clear.

    • Hi Iain,

      Yes I think it is also something you can control – only you can make sure you do better than your past self, but other people can affect how you do in relation to others. You may never be happy if you spend too much time comparing yourself to others.

  5. Welcome Robyn. Love the post because the term success is such a diverse topic. Working over the past year with thieves that steal our success, the challenge remains for each of us – how to be on purpose, work with passion and perform to our personal best. If we can do that in everything we do, then we are successful. If we keep our word and others trust us, then we are successful. And if we are grateful for the blessings and challenges we enjoy every day, we are successful. Life is so full of amazing people, opportunities and emotions that when we choose to be successful, we always will be.

  6. Very thought provoking post. My wife and I are just starting to build our business. This will be a great exercise to work through as we develop goals for growth. Thank you, Robyn.

  7. I’ll second what Sarah wrote above.
    I think we over use the word success and do not give enough credit to progress and development.
    Success is a goal achieved, kind of an end of a process (and can be a one time thing). The opposite of success is failure which is also an end, termination.
    When we talk about progress and development – success or failure is just part of the way, not an end by itself, rather a stage or step on a long lasting journey.

  8. Really mind opening post. I listened to this on speak mode and loved it. Success really depends on how you personally measure it. I wonder if success is also an emotion?

  9. In my coaching work, I have seen over and over again that people undervalue and over compare themselves. Really I think the key is to find areas of success already in their lives to pull gratitude from. I talk about this in one of my blog posts ->

    Your idea of defining metrics is very good. I suggest that you look at already what you have accomplished, define those as successes and baseline metrics. Then drive on from there. This gives you a position of strength to operate from and allows you to build on what you do well.

    Thanks for the great article.

    • Hi Mike,

      I think you have the right idea about how to define success! It’s nice to see that so many people commenting here value personal growth more than how they stack up against others.

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