The Problematic Idea of Success in Business

June 6, 2016

4:00 pm

Whether you’re just starting out or have decades of experience, figuring out how to be successful in business can be a daunting task. Success, as many people see it, can only be defined through narrow terms. After all, material successes only get you so far. Instead, people are typically obsessed with “leadership, achievement, and excellence” when it comes to being successful.

But what if the key to being successful wasn’t in changing your approach – but rather in changing how we look at and measure success altogether? In a speech given to the 2016 graduates of Colgate University, columnist Omid Safi tackles the idea of success, and how graduates can achieve it by reevaluating how it’s approached. He says:

“I have some questions about leadership. After all, if everybody is leading, who gets to follow? When do we learn followership? When do we learn collegiality? Being part of a team when you are not the alpha dog — those are important life skills too. But mainly what I want to talk with you about is this problematic idea of success. I would even say that we preach a kind of Gospel of Success in this country. We want you to be successful in your personal life. Successful in your love life. Successful in your faith. Successful in your investment.

Real life doesn’t usually work like that. Real life doesn’t often work like that. In fact, real life almost never works like that. Success is not some kind of a teleological process, not some kind of a linear climb up a mountain. Nor is it even something as straightforward as a cliché that “the journey is just as important as the destination.” The truth of the matter is that life is really messy. Life is complicated. Every single one of us, even the ones who from the outside look like we have made it, stumble and fall flat on our face multiple times.”

The New Idea of Success

When we take away the ever-present idea of being successful, what are we left with? From Safi’s speech to articles that research how it is changing with industry trends, views of success vary greatly across industries and individuals.

It’s time we begin to see success as something that is as personal as anything else in our lives. In order to achieve it, we have to begin embracing the power of individualized success, remaining patient, and committing to achieving it for the long-term. After all, you can’t be successful without knowing what that even means.

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Cameron is a tech and culture journalist, comic book enthusiast, and lives near New York City. A graduate of Stockton University, she's using her words to shift the world of online journalism, one byline at a time. When she's not writing, she can be found reading sci-fi novels, collecting succulents, and planning her next obnoxious hair color. Cameron is an editorial fellow at Tech.Co. Send your tips to or tweet @BlkGirlManifest.