Wholehearted Leadership Opinion: How do you spell success?

What if we defined success more qualitatively, by how much we contribute rather than by how much we acquire?

Credit: Zizar2002/iStock

No matter where you are in your career, it pays to stop and think about how to enrich others rather than acquire more things for yourself

Do you remember that old Rolaids commercial?

“How do you spell relief?”


What a great campaign. I still recall it vividly it after all these years.

Recently I was out for a coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. We both started businesses at the same time. We had both grown them over the years. We had both tasted a certain degree of success in our careers. We are in our 50s now.

As we sipped our espresso-based drinks in a funky downtown outdoor café, we reminisced about our decades in business, what we had accomplished, the good times we had along the way and the struggles we had to work through.

We drilled a little deeper, as well, into those latter-years issues that revolve around significance more than success. Issues that have more to do with contribution than competition, that are more about legacy than living in luxury. We talked about that deep-down desire to contribute to the greater good. To ensure that somehow we mattered. To make a difference because of how we lived and how we led.

That’s when I thought about the Rolaids ad, except I heard my inner voice asking, “How do you spell success?”

We tend to spell success quantitatively as opposed to qualitatively. We tend to define it in monetary terms: revenue, profit, income, investments, rates of return and the stuff we can buy with money. It’s easy to chase this definition of success in our younger years—build, grow, acquire, accumulate, accomplish…

“How much is enough?”

“A little more…”

We end up chasing the horizon; the closer we think we get, we remain as far away as when we started.

However, in the latter years of our careers, perhaps after we’ve enjoyed a degree of success and what that has to offer, we may find ourselves asking deeper questions about what true success looks like. As we move from success to significance, our definition of success needs to shift, too.

What if we defined success more qualitatively? Instead of measuring it by how much we conquer, we measure it by how much we contribute. Instead of measuring it by how rich we have become, we measure it by how we have enriched others. Instead of looking at the possessions we have acquired, we look at the character we have demonstrated.

Is our bank account full and our heart bankrupt—devoid of contentment, peace, joy, hope, kindness, meaningful friendships, happiness and, dare I say, love? Have we been so focused on success as a road to happiness that we’ve missed the turn on life’s highway showing that happiness is the result of how we contribute to others, not how we accumulate for ourselves?

Our true happiness grows best when transplanted in the soil of other people’s lives.

It’s time to assess the quality of our own lives, not just their quantity. The question that always gets asked at business functions is, “Are you busy?” Or when we’re asked how things are going, we reply, “Oh, I’m busy”—as if busyness is the goal, or somehow the road to success.

When asked that question now, I reply differently. Instead of a quick and shallow, “Oh, yeah, I’m busy,” I try to say, “Well, busyness isn’t my goal—but I hope I’m contributing somehow.”

So how do you spell success? May your definition be more about what you are giving than what you are getting. May it be more about your contributions and less about your acquisitions.

I encourage you to pause in the midst of the busyness of life and define what success really looks like for you. I hope it’s more others-serving than self-serving.

Life is short, and it may soon be past, but what we have done for others will last.

David MacLean empowers CEOs, entrepreneurs and executives to dare greatly in his role as chair of The Executive Committee (TEC) Canada. David also writes and speaks on Wholehearted Leadership: inspiring, encouraging and equipping leaders to harness their most valuable asset—their HEART. You can reach him at david@wholeheartedleaders.com