Success vs Achievement

April 15, 2014 Spencer Thompson

Many times, we observe that there is an irony to success. There are many people who achieve great success but don’t recognize or feel it. We hear of the individuals that become famous yet are extremely lonely. There is a simple reason for this, and one that many people get confused about. They assume that success and achievement are the same thing, when they are not. As a culture we mistake one for the other. Let’s look at the differences between the two and why they are so key to understand.

Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal. Achievement is something tangible, clearly defined and we are able to measure it.

Success is completely in contrast, as it is a feeling or a state of being. There are many explanations for what success feels like, but I carry around a simple formula. Success = Happiness. If you are happy in your life, then you are successful. More on that in a second.

So what are the differences between success and achievement? Why can’t we consider them to be the same thing? First of all, the path to reaching each is completely different. To reach achievement, we can easily lay down a path with measurable milestones along the way. Businesses do this all the time with business, marketing a financial plans. They expect to be at X revenue goal by X date, and if they are, they have achieved their goal. To them, this equals success. This is where most businesses and people go wrong.

Achievement comes when one pursues what they want. 

Success comes when one pursues why they want it. There is a huge difference.

Achievement is motivated by tangible factors that we observe in our environments. As businesspeople, we observe achievement based on monetary values. If a company has a larger number after the dollar sign, they have achieved more. We use revenue (or hopefully profit) as a measuring stick. That much is tangible. As homeowners, we observe that our neighbours have a much larger house, a more expensive car and nicer clothes than we do. We then begin to feel bad because we have not had that level of achievement. What we wrongly assume is that the neighbour is more successful than us.

Success does not come from something tangible, but rather from something deep within our brain, where we lack the ability to translate those feelings into human speech. Success comes when we get out of bed each morning in the never-ending pursuit of why we do what we do. All achievements do are serve as the milestones to help us acknowledge that we are on the right path. Indeed we need both success and achievement, it’s not an either/or scenario, we just need to understand how they fit in. 

There is a great quote that goes “money can’t buy you happiness, but it pays for the yacht to pull alongside it”. This is quite true if we look a little closer at it. The yacht represents achievement, it is easily tangible, and with the right plan, completely attainable. The thing that we pull alongside represents the hard-to-define feeling of success. This is intangible, and thus much harder to see and attain. These are usually distinct concepts that sometimes go together and sometimes don’t. 

More importantly, most people, in pursuit of success, mistake what they feel as the final destination. And this is the exact reason that those people never feel satisfied no matter how big their yacht is, no matter how much they achieve. As a culture, we have a false assumption that if we achieve more, the illustrious feeling of success will follow. It hardly ever does.

As we progress in our careers or businesses, we become more confident in what we do. We then become greater experts in how to do it. With each greater achievement, the tangible measurements of success and the feeling of progress increase. Life is awesome. However, for the majority of people, somewhere along the journey they forget why they set out on the journey in the first place. 

Those with an ability to never lose sight of why, no matter how little or how much they achieve, can inspire us. Those with the ability to never lose sight of why and also achieve the milestones that keep everyone focused in the right direction are the great leaders. Everyone should be in pursuit of why, hold themselves accountable to how they do it and what they do serves as the tangible proof of what they believe. For most of us, however, we reach a split, where what we do and why we do it are not aligned. It is the separation of the tangible and intangible.


Written by Spencer Thompson 

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