What Does Success Mean to You?

What does success mean to you?How do you define success? And do you consider yourself successful? These are just some of the questions I received when I wrote – It takes more than money to retire early. My first reaction was to say yes, I’m successful. My family enjoys a modest lifestyle and we’re happy. We are financially secure and we’re not lacking for anything. I consider that successful. However, the questions stuck with me. Now, I’m not so sure. Am I really successful? We live in a small home, I drive a banged up car, and we rarely go out to spend money. That doesn’t sound like success.

Recently, my son’s friend told me he went to see a Portland Trailblazers game (basketball.) The whole team gave him a high-five. His dad got him lower level seats for a playoff game (apparently $750.) The kid told me, “My dad is rich.” Wow, I’m jealous. Other dads at my son’s soccer game talked about making a million dollar deal in Beijing. Now, I don’t feel too successful. It’s difficult to grade objectively with these acquaintances.

I think we have to look at success in a more granular manner. You can’t just say someone is successful just because their lifestyle looks good from the outside. You don’t see the whole story.

How do you define success?

First, what does success mean to me? I must admit, my definition of success is pretty conventional. It means a beautiful house, a nice car, a loving family, a highly paid job, and other highly visible trappings. Mrs. RB40 used to read Architectural Digest and Travel + Leisure magazines. The lifestyle depicted in those posh magazines looks like success to me. They never seem real, though. Those lives look too perfect.

Now that I thought more about it, I realize that’s not quite true. That level of success isn’t very realistic. Is it truly possible to be successful with everything? Even the richest person in the world failed at marriage. Those high-power dads are working all the time and don’t have much time for their kids. Are they more successful than I am? Maybe professionally, but probably not when it comes to family life.

Anyway, success isn’t just about career and money. There are many facets of life. As a former engineer, I always say – when in doubt make a spreadsheet. Check it out.

Success MatrixHmmm… My overall success score is not great, just 5.93. Let’s go each line item.

Material things – 5

I give us a 5 for material things. We have everything we need, but we live relatively modestly. Our home is small for a family of 3, around 950 square feet. Our car is a modest minivan, a 2010 Mazda 5. It’s even more banged up now that a bicycle crashed into the rear liftgate recently. Our 720p TV is older than our car. It’s still working so I’m hesitant to replace it.

All in all, we’re not lacking for anything, but we don’t live luxuriously. Someday, I’d like to spend more on nicer things, but not yet. These things aren’t that important to me so I don’t mind living a modest lifestyle. I would like a nicer TV, though. A 55” 4k TV cost less than what we paid for our old 42” TV in 2006. (I thought electronics have built-in obsolescence. Why is this TV lasting so long? Apparently, we don’t watch enough TV.)

mazda 5 hole liftgate

Experience – 8

Everyone is touting experience over material things these days. Personally, I like to give them equal weighting. I love new experiences, but I enjoy nice stuff too. However, I’m a bit looser with money when it comes to spending on experiences. We traveled to many places and enjoyed all our trips. We went rafting, snowboarding, skydiving, and experienced many other fun activities. It’s been good. I give myself an 8 here.

Marriage – 10

I split the family category into two parts, marriage and kids. I lucked out with my marriage, big time. Mrs. RB40 is the perfect partner for me. We enjoy each other’s company and we’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary in a few months. We make a great team. On the other hand, we’ll need to be vigilant and continue to improve our marriage. People still get a divorce after 25 or 30 years. You have to work on it to keep a marriage strong. Hopefully, we’ll go the distance.

Kid – 7

This one is incomplete because our son is quite young. We’re trying to do a good job, but it’s hard. He still gets in trouble at school occasionally. Just last week, he was sent to the principal office. He got in a little altercation with a friend at school. Fortunately, he’s in trouble less often than in previous years. Anyway, if someone hits you, you gotta hit back. Can’t fault a kid too much for fighting back, right?

Luckily, he’s smart and enjoys reading so we don’t have to worry about school work. He is doing well academically for now. Lastly, he’s slowly growing more resilient. He is able to shrug things off better now. Last year, he’d cry if he fell down during a soccer game, but now he shrugs it off and get back to the game without too much trouble. He’s making progress, that’s great.

All in all, our son is doing okay. Truthfully, I’m not sure why I give myself a 7 here. I just feel like I could do a better job. The biggest issue we have right now is screen time. He spends too much time with the tablet. I need to sign him up for more outdoor activities now that the weather has improved.

Engineering career – 3

Professionally, I wasn’t very successful. I was a good engineer and I liked the technical work, but I wasn’t able to move up professionally. I disliked the leadership role and couldn’t get ahead as a senior engineer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make any meaningful contribution to the field. The things I worked on are all obsolete now. It’s somewhat disappointing, but I guess that’s the same for most professionals. Only a few people make a lasting impact in any field.

Blogging – 7

As for my 2nd act, I feel more successful as a blogger. I’ve been blogging for 9 years and I still enjoy it. Retire by 40 isn’t the biggest blog or make the most money, but it’s doing better than I ever thought possible. I’m quite content with how Retire by 40 is doing.

I give myself a 7 here because there is room for improvement.

* Starting a blog is a great way to build your brand and generate some extra income. You can see my tutorial – How to Start A Blog and Why You Should. Check it out if you’re thinking about blogging. 

Money – 9

I think we’ve done very well financially. Our net worth is good and we feel financially secure. The only debt we have is our mortgage. Our retirement savings is excellent compared to the average US household. We’re not rich, but we’re in better shape financially than most people.

My main financial goal is to have enough passive income to cover our living expense. We’re almost there so I feel good about our finance. Once our FI ratio exceeds 100% for 3 consecutive years, I’ll give myself a 10 here.

Fame – 7

Fame is not important to me at all. Why would anyone want to be famous? It seems like a pain in the caboose. To me, fame seems pretty much useless. I guess you can parlay fame into income somehow.

That’s said, I think I have plenty of fame from blogging. Many people have visited Retire by 40 over the years or have read about me. I’m quite happy with this level of fame. I guess it is equivalent to a D-list level celebrity…

Power – 3

Hmmm… Power is important to some people, but not me. I guess I have some influence as a blogger, but that’s not much power. I’ll give myself a 3 here and I’m happy with that.

Who really cares about power anyway? Politicians and managers, I guess.

Legacy – 3

Legacy is tough. I don’t feel like I’ll leave much impact on the world once I’m gone. That’s normal, though. Most people just live their regular lives the best they can. I admire people who make a big positive impact, but that’s just not me.

I guess I’m one of the first FIRE bloggers so I made some positive impact to a few people’s lives. I’m not sure if the FIRE movement is a fad or not, though. All these FIRE blogs and podcasts probably will fade away with time. Anyway, I give myself a low score here, just a 3.

Philanthropy – 2

Sadly, I’m horrible at philanthropy. I give a little bit, but probably much less than most people. I hope to improve in the future. It’s just not a priority at this time.

Spiritual – 2

This one is tough for me. I’m just not very spiritual. My parents are Buddhist, but I only know a little bit about it. There aren’t any temples nearby and I’m not too interested.

I don’t think many of us have time for spirituality these days. We’re all too busy with our lives. I’d like to learn about Buddhism when I’m older. It should be easier once I spend more time in Thailand. I plan to live there half-time once our son goes off to college.

Health – 8

I’m doing well with health. We usually cook healthy meals at home and I exercise regularly. Also, I don’t have many vices. I enjoy a drink once in a while and that’s about it. No drugs, cigarette, or loud music. Yes, I’m pretty boring. My genetic isn’t that great, though. That’s why I don’t have a higher score here.

Freedom – 9

This one is personal freedom. I have a ton of freedom now and I love it. Being self-employed is the best. I don’t have a boss and I could work at my own pace. Life is really good now. Retiring from my engineering career was the right choice for me.

I was successful at seizing my freedom when the opportunity presented itself. Early retirement worked out really well for me.

Contentment – 8

This is the one that matters most. I think it’s even more important than the overall score. I’ve been successful with some items and didn’t do so well with others. However, I’m quite content with my life. I’m successful enough at the things that are meaningful to me and my family.

I got low scores on power, legacy, philanthropy, and spirituality. But they don’t mean that much to me so those failures don’t impact my contentment much. I wish I was more successful in my engineering career, though. It would have been nice to make a meaningful contribution to the field.

Family, health, money, and personal freedom are much more important to me. I’ve been largely successful in those categories. That’s why my contentment score is pretty good.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Do I consider myself successful?

I’m successful in some facets of life. However, I’m also unsuccessful in others. It’s a mixed bag. Even my Success Matrix doesn’t tell the whole story. My overall score is mediocre, but I’m quite content with life. Ultimately, who’s the judge of success? It’s you and your immediate family’s opinion that matters the most. As long as you’re successful in those eyes, you’ve done well.

In conclusion, I consider myself a moderate success. Good thing I’m still relatively young. I still have years to improve my success score.

How about you? Do you consider yourself successful? How do you measure success?

Follow up – Inner VS Outer Scorecard

The comments are great for this post. They made me want to write a follow-up. Another way to look at success is to use the inner vs outer scorecard. That’s a great idea. The inner scorecard is how you judge yourself. The outer scorecard is how other people see you.

On my spreadsheet above, the inner scorecard is the “happiness” score. That’s how successful I think I am. I’m content with my life and I gave myself an 8.

The outer scorecard is the overall score. It’s 5.93. That’s how successful other people think I am. My overall score is just the average of every row above. To an outside observer, my life looks okay. Joe isn’t too successful, but he’s not struggling either.

I’m very satisfied with both scores. I don’t need to look successful to people I don’t know. In fact, it’s better to look somewhat unsuccessful so you can avoid unwanted attention. Nobody bothers me and that’s how I prefer it. It’s perfect.

Thanks for reading!

Image by Bruce Mars

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. They have many useful tools that will help you reach financial independence.

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50 thoughts on “What Does Success Mean to You?”

  1. I used to be obsessed with being successful, always looking to work for the big name companies and get fancy titles. But interestingly over the past few years (no coincidence that this is the same time frame when I got into FI/FIRE) my interest in the conventional trappings of success has disappeared.

    Now I think that success is being able to enjoy your work, choose your clients and have a fully rounded life, without being stuck in the office until 9 pm every night!

  2. When in doubt makes a spreadsheet?! Hahaha I love it. I think my husband said that before too. I love that spreadsheet idea but some is so subjective, like “My genetic isn’t that great, though. That’s why I don’t have a higher score here.” That’s hard to say especially with genes!! I think your score should be a little higher 🙂

    • And you should double the legacy score. You have a son and a popular blog. I think for most people it’s a 2-3, for the normie that go through the motions not you.

  3. Hi Joe, I really like this: “As a former engineer, I always say – when in doubt make a spreadsheet”. Yeah, that’s what engineers do.

    Excellent post. You are a humble man. Actually you are very successful in many people’s eyes. Don’t underestimate what you have done.

    To me, I’m trying to have less regrets for my whole life. One day when I check out of this world, if I could proudly say that I have been treating myself well, and enjoying my life, that would mean my life is a success. That’s what I’m shooting for.

  4. I equate success with happiness. That’s what it comes down to in life. If you’re not happy, for any reason, how can your life be successful.

  5. This is an interesting way of doing things. I’ve been getting back into mind mapping recently and I could see grouping some of these related items together.

    There’s a Four Burners Theory that says you have to split your efforts across family, friends, work, and health. You don’t have enough gas for all of them. I don’t know about your friends, but it seems like you’ve nailed the other 3 overall. I think that could be why contentment is so high, you’ve got the things that matter to you.

    I think you should take a shot at customizing each category for how important it is to you. Take 100 points and divide it up across all categories. Freedom might be worth 20 and spirituality might be worth 4. Marriage and kid may add up 30 points and material may max out at 6 points.

    I think you’ll find that you score higher on your version of success which is really what matters.

    • I like the 4 burners theory. Nobody has enough time to be successful with all those things.
      I wrote a follow-up in the post. My version of success is the contentment score. It’s helpful to think of it as inner vs outer success.

  6. I think anyone who FIRE’d probably don’t pay as much attention to the conventional definition of career success. It takes a certain mindset to quit working during your 30s and 40s when most are at their peak. It all depends on your definition of success. I think you’re a very successful blogger and definitely deserve a 10 for blogging.

    • That’s a great point. Going out when you’re at the top has appeal too. Some people already had a successful career before retiring early. That’s better than I did.
      Thanks for the compliment about blogging. There are so many more successful bloggers, though. I’m happy with 7 for now.

  7. Oof, that’s a doozy. I work in a field (customer service) where I’m not sure you could be considered successful. But I actually have a very generous boss, and I’m the better of our whopping two customer service reps (which sounds snotty, but trust me, she puts forth very little effort). So career-wise (while most would scoff at a “career” in customer service) I’m actually sitting pretty.

    Financially, I’m not quite where I want to be, mainly due to being married to a spender with chronic health problems for 10 years. But I’m getting there.

    As for the rest, I’m pretty content with my life. “Marriage” could arguably be a 0 since I’m divorced, but I’d argue that it could also be a 10 because divorcing my ex was one of the best things I could have done for myself. I suppose that’s a little dark, but it’s true.

    So overall, I’d say I’m moderately successful with the potential to get much more so. Which seems like a good deal to me.

  8. Maybe the “Kid” category should have been labeled “Parenting” instead?

    With the label “Kid” it sounds like you’re giving your kid a 7 out of 10 grade. But the description really seems more a judgment on your personal assessment of your own parenting. ?

  9. Hmm, I think I would define success with how happy you are in life. For some that might be completely reliant on money while for others, that would be completely irrelevant.

    For me, I’d say I feel that I’ve been successful up to this point in life. There are still a lot of things I want to do (some to provide monetary value and some not), but I’m happy with where we’re at in life (FIRE doesn’t hurt that!). I have a great wife and daughter and we enjoy the time we spend together and don’t really seem to want in life. To me, that’s success.

    — Jim

  10. I think everyone has their own definition of what successful means. But I don’t think being successful means you’re making tons of money, driving expensive cars, living in a mansion, and vacationing in exotic places. Looking at your numbers, I don’t think you should just average all the numbers. You should definitely put more weighting on marriage, experience, kids, health, freedom, and contentment. One thing to improve is maybe your spirituality. IT doesn’t necessarily mean you need to follow a religion though. 🙂

    I discussed briefly what success means to me on this article a while ago:

  11. Joe, I am a long time reader and generally on board. I also think the characterization of a divorce as “failed at marriage” is unfair and kind of detrimental to those divorced. Relationships are complicated and people are too over time. If a pro-athlete quits the game after 3 years did he fail at sports? Divorced is a permanent label that carries lots of baggage in our society. I know statistically that people who stay married are happier. I work on my relationship with my wife often and strive to maintain it. I wish long and healthy relationships to all… but sometimes they end. Sometimes despite best intentions. What do you think? Also, thanks for getting me thinking about how I gauge success this morning. I may try a similar ranking exercise.

    • I apologize for that. I didn’t mean failure. Divorce can be very helpful. If you need to move on, then that’s one way to make a clean break. I just wanted to say even Jeff Bezos isn’t successful with every facet of life.
      Ultimately, you score yourself. If a divorcee thinks he/she is successful in the family category, then that’s great for them.

  12. Success is such a loaded word, as the definition is different for everyone! This is why I think it’s tough to make a matrix or scale of it. If you like the scale a better way is perhaps to assign weights to the categories that mean the most to you and better defines success for yourself. For instance, since you don’t care about fame or power those would be weighted much lower than family, freedom and contentment!

    • Thanks for your input. I’m doing pretty well with inner peace even with not much spirituality.
      I think it should be easier as you age, right? You can focus more on yourself and your immediate family.

  13. Have you ever read “The Snowball” about Warren Buffet. One of the things he attributes his success to is his ability to use an Inner Scorecard vs an Outer Scorecard. Do you think your success matrix measures what matters to you?

    • No, I haven’t. I’ll get it from the library. Thanks for the recommendation.
      The inner scorecard is the happiness score. I think the outer scorecard is the overall score.
      I think that’s probably it. What do you think?

      • I loved The Snowball, yes, Warren Buffett talks about the inner scorecard and outer scorecard. From what I read, it was more like inner scorecard is being accountable to yourself and your own goals, and not caring about what others think. Outerscorecard is more like “Keeping up with the Joneses” wanting to show the world that you are successful.

        I think success is more like being able to achieve the goals that you work towards and that you want to achieve.

  14. this is a good article, joe. i feel differently about it depending upon the day. i grew up very modestly in the country. on days where i consider where i started it all feels like a real success. i solved a couple of things in my work career and enjoy my home life tremendously. even though our house wasn’t expensive i really enjoy the architecture of it and the character and all of the art on the walls. being married to a fine artist helps enhance that part of our life for sure. i think winning the home life part makes great success.

    on the other side of the spectrum i grew up smart near the top of my class like i’m sure you and so many readers did. did we fulfill what we were told was our “potential?” i’m not sure but the outsiders can go ahead and judge. just don’t bother reporting the results back to me. we’re not living for external validation.

    • I have those days too. Usually, I feel pretty good about my life and I feel successful. It’s just once in a while when I see or hear ostentatious display of wealth that I feel less successful. You’re right about the potential thing too.
      I guess I could have done more for humanity if I worked more, but who knows. Probably not…

  15. You strike me as a successful guy Joe. From your assessment, it seems that on the points that matter most to you, you score yourself quite highly – in my book, that’s a long way towards being a success.

    Not quite the same, but one of my very early blog posts compared my friend’s target of having an income of $1 million a year to my target which was to be happy. My idea was that if you were happy, then you were successful. In case anyone’s interested, here’s a link to that post https://www.iretiredyoung.net/single-post/2017/03/29/1-million-vs-Happy

    And also in your post today, “when in doubt make a spreadsheet”. Wise words indeed?

    • I think most of us will come to the same conclusion as we age. When we’re old, we’ll look back and think about success in term of happiness and relationships. Thanks for the link.

  16. Oh, good post, Joe. Comments will be gold. A big smile to your marriage score. I hope that bicyclist is going to pay for that damage!! Some careless snowboarder slammed into me, never apologized. But my insurance co. asked me, did I get his info and insurance company info? Please keep this in mind everyone!
    I love the post from Anita above, being a good role model for one’s kid=success! Yes! Thank you! Anita! Also working/paying for my education. Grrrreat post! ; )

    • Thank you! I got a check from his insurance company. Thank goodness. I’ll keep the cash, though. It was more than the car is worth at this point.
      I try to be a good role model for our son too. It’s tough.

  17. I think now that I’m older(62) I appreciate spirituality and philanthropy more. I have more time and experience to understand where MY values are vs where Society tells me they should be. Also I think I was successful at being a role model for my daughter which was important to me. I had steady employment for 40 years and during that time went to night school for my undergrad and graduate degrees. That was a personal success for me but a great example for her. In listening to my 90+ years old parents, it’s always great experiences that light up their faces with good memories—not the stuff they purchased, which eventually needs to get tossed as we age and downsize.

    • Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it. I hope to grow spiritually and philanthropically too. It’s hard right now because life is so hectic in my 40s. Good point about experiences and stuff too. I have a horrible memory so experiences don’t rank that high to me. My wife has a great memory, though. She keeps track of everything for us.

  18. First off you probably scored yourself way too low on many of those. With what you make on your blog and how hard it is to make money bogging I’d say you have a “10” there for sure.

    And to me success should be defined by living a true & honest life, having meaningful relationships, and serving others. Those are hard to score. It definitely has zero to do with court-side basketball seats.

    • That is a nice matrix you created and you are right that there are somethings that trump others such as marriage, kids, and contentment and you scored very high on all of those.

      No one is going to get perfect 10s across the board. You have to pick the categories that matter the most to you and strive to make those numbers as high as you can. Some people crave fame and power (I do not) but because of that they have to sacrifice other areas.

      And just because your kids friends can buy playoff tickets, etc does not mean they can afford them. Many a person was thought to be rich but later found out it was all a highly leveraged lifestyle.

  19. For your overall score, did you just do straight average? If so, that may be why your overall score is not reflective of your level of happiness. The things you scored low on such as power don’t have equal weight as marriage, contentment and other things that you highlighted are important to you. So if I may offer a suggestion, I’d add another column for weight factor and rate the importance of each line item to you, and then do a weighted average to be a closer reflection of your happiness.

    The other option is to measure only those that have high importance to you and average those, and that I think will be closer to how happy you actually are.

    In any case, this post resonated with me. Thanks.

    • Yes, I just averaged everything. I started to add a weight factor, but I didn’t. It seems success should be objective.
      The happiness score is already subjective and I think it’s more important than the overall score. I’ll try weighting the spreadsheet and see how it looks. Thanks!

  20. Honestly, I’m not very interested in “success”. Most people define it as how much money you make, or how big a house you have. None of those things interest me.

    For me, it’s just the wrong thing to think about. People only see success when they compare to the standards set by other people. In your case those Architectural Digest magazines. I try not to compare myself.

    There’s always going to be someone who has a bigger house or makes more money or whatever. It’s a moving target that you’ll never hit, and you’ll always be dissatisfied.

    I’m just happy I have enough money I can spend time with my family almost indefinitely. That’s enough success for me.

    • Usually, I compare our current lifestyle to the past. Our son has a much more comfortable childhood than I did. That’s what really counts for me. However, it’s hard not to compare when I overhear these conversations and see how other people live.
      I’m happy with our lifestyle too. It’s a good life.
      Another point I wanted to make was that you don’t need to be successful to enjoy a good life. I couldn’t fit that in, though.

  21. Hey Joe, I’d definitely say you’re someone who is successful on many levels! Although, what I think is irrelevant. Success is relative to your present state of mind and being. I like how you’ve defined multiple areas of your life and given yourself scores. Awesome job with your marriage! I think I’ve got a pretty good one too, but I still wouldn’t be close to a 10. 😉

    Overall, I feel successful in many regards. I think I’ve figured out finances much earlier than most people my age, although it’s always interesting to compare yourself to the other 10% who are ahead of you. Relationship wise, I’m doing pretty well, but it could improve. I’ve got a fantastic relationship with my kids, and continually working with my wife to enhance our own relationship… there are of course good days and bad days. I do wish I was a bit better keeping in touch with my closer friends on a consistent basis, but something to work on. Healthwise I’m doing better by eating significantly less meat, desserts, and I’ve cut out coffee and boba completely.

    When I’m on my death bed, I think I’ll feel successful if I’ve provided well for my family, helped my friends, added value to this world, and been kind much more often than not.


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