How do you judge success?

When I embarked on my experiment with nonconsumerism this year by joining The Compact, I assumed I would be successful. That is, I thought I would be successful at eschewing material comforts and making do with what I already had, with maybe a few slip-ups.

What I didn’t realize was how much the whole endeavor would subtly work on my entire value system and worldview: what I care about, how I spend my time, and my definition of success.

I’ve been thinking about continuing with The Compact after this calendar year. That hadn’t occurred to me when I started, but lately it seems very feasible. What’s certain is that I’m not chomping at the bit, just waiting until I can go on a shopping binge come January 1st 2010. My Buy Nothing New commitment has changed me, because I’ve become aware of every purchase I make, and I could never go back to being an unconscious consumer.

And becoming conscious in this way has made me see more than ever how empty a value system that judges success based on material possessions really is. It’s not that I didn’t believe that before, it just wasn’t quite as strong a conviction.

Sure, I like nice things. And having the bills paid and money in the bank helps us sleep at night. But once you’re past that threshold of survival, does another pair of designer jeans really make you happy? A fancy car? A bigger house?

These questions aren’t new or original, and each of us has to find our own answers, live our own lives, make our own discoveries. But I ask you: are people happier when they have more things, more possessions, more stuff? I’ve never seen any evidence of it. So why do so many people pursue that course so relentlessly? Sometimes I think we’re a nation of people searching for salvation in a mall. Even some places of worship are turning into megachurches, mall-like entertainment centers that I can’t begin to fathom.

And how do we buy all these things? We work more, to earn more money, to buy more stuff. I remember once back in the 1980s talking to a student from Germany. He couldn’t understand why everyone was running around from one appointment to the next, their busy-ness an apparent measure of their success. He said that in Germany, people viewed success as having time to design their own schedules, and that included lots of coffee house lounging and intense conversation.

My idea of success squares more closely with this one than it does the materialist one. Lately I’ve been thinking that in our culture, the people we consider successful – namely because they make a lot of money – rarely have a moment to themselves. No time for introspection, goofing off, or just plain hanging out. They’re slaves to their Blackberries. Maybe not at the level of Oprah or Bill Gates, but for many professionals who live in nice neighborhoods and drive Mercedes it’s become the norm.

Certainly working at what you love, being good at it, and making a contribution in your field would constitute success. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into material wealth. You could work for the Peace Corps, design a public space, be an excellent nurse, invent a labor-saving device, compose beautiful music, perform life-saving surgeries, write inspiring plays, discover a vaccine, or a million other things, and you may or may not be financially rewarded for it. It’s nice if you are, but it doesn’t prove whether or not you’re successful.

My definition of success includes rewarding work (paid or unpaid), close relationships, an ability to appreciate and be grateful for what you have, having time to live an “examined” life and do the things you enjoy, achieving something you set out to do, doing a little extra when it will make a difference, and not always taking the easy way out. It would also involve a realization that you do make a difference, that we all do, and to resolve to work for what you know is good and right. To live your values. For me, successful people have made the world a better place.

In the end, I don’t think anyone has said it better than Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

How do you judge success? Please let us know in the Comments section.


  1. Cate says

    While I haven't joined the Compact, my husband and I have been looking to simplify our lives for a good while now. We recently reconfigured our budget and split up our entertainment budget into a weekly amount (rather than monthly, which was too hard to keep track of) that we withdraw in cash every week. When that money's gone, it's gone, and we have to wait until next week to get any more. Once upon a time, we would blindly spend this money on trinkets and then wonder where it went. But lately, I've noticed that we choose to spend most of our fun money on experiences rather than material things: baseball games, trips to the zoo. Seems that much of the time, we'd rather do something fun together as a family than buy something! And it's a good feeling. We still buy things, of course, but we put more thought into our purchases, and tend to buy only things that will actually bring us pleasure.

  2. The Thrifty Countrywoman says

    What a good post! I've been living this way my entire life and it wasn't easy in the status conscious 80s. Sadly, I see a lot of people trying to "buy" happiness. I think they get caught up in what society dictates, rather than what truly gives them joy. Maybe they are just insecure and don't trust their own inner voice.


  3. Krista says

    "We work more, to earn more money, to buy more stuff"

    It really is amazing when you think about it like that. All the work just doesn't make any sense!

  4. VoluntarySimplicity says

    Great post. Very timely. I will be answering your questions in a similar post on my new blog soon. I just need a little time to think it over…

  5. janetex says

    Like "the thrifty countrywoman" I too have been living this way all my life. I find it frustrating at times to convey to others the fact that I don’t “have” to live a simple life, but that I find it a wonderful way to live.

    I was raised by a mother whose mantra was “you don’t need that,” and when as a teenager I came home with some new shopping acquisition she would often say “did you really need that?”

    I imagine her frugal ways were a result of a childhood when there wasn’t much money to spend on other than the necessities. Later in life when she could afford more, she retained her belief that waste and conspicuous consumption were not admirable traits.

    Long after she had a clothes dryer, she continued hanging out her laundry to dry. She could not understand why anyone would spend money on wasteful paper towels when a dish cloth would do the job.

    She lived The Compact all her life, but she wasn’t cheap. She sewed every dress I ever owned until I married and left home, and she never skimped on the quality of the fabric she used. Consequently I had dresses that lasted for years and years.

    I feel very fortunate that I don’t need much to be happy, and feel sorry for people who are constantly chasing more. I measure success by having "enough" and having the time to enjoy experiences rather than things.

  6. Non Consumer Girl says

    Angela, this is one of your best posts!

    Success to me right now is bringing up a child to be a caring, loving happy, healthy and well adjusted person.

    It is having and enjoying close relationships with my partner and my friends and my parents, and spending time together.

    Success for me is also becoming a better person and overcoming or changing those things in my life that are not the way that I want to live.

  7. Shymom says

    This summer I painted the word "Enough" on a riser on my front porch. Enough is all I want and need out of life and is an easy goal to attain.

    Wouldn't it be great if all we longed for was enough? The world would be a much better place.

    My husband and I had the good fortune of being able to step out of the rat race 10 years ago. We now both work part-time, volunteer in the community, and are able to really spend time with our kids and each other. Of course, we are only able to do this because we don't try to keep up with the Jones.

    Some people would look at our small house and think we aren't doing well.

    They would be wrong. 😎

  8. Betsy Talbot says

    We're not on the Compact, but we have been living a life of voluntary simplicity for a few years now, and a strict one for the last year as we save for this big trip around the world.

    Not only are we not buying, we are actually selling/donating everything before we leave. Talk about a lesson in what's important! I've gone through an unexpected transformation during this process as well, and I'm not sure I'll ever think about consumerism the same way again. Being successful or rich is really about having the freedom to live like you want, not being surrounded by status symbols.

    One year from now I'll only have a backpack full of things and a box or two sitting at mom's house. And you know what? I can't wait until the day I become that RICH.

    Thanks for writing this post, Angela. It really touched me. (and thanks for your last 2 lines, shymom – they were spot on!)

  9. Angela says

    Thank you all for your insightful comments! I really appreciate you taking the time to share them.

    Yes, sometimes it's strange to find yourself in a position when you feel like you're defending your life choices or proving they're right for you. I think it's another instance of our culture being predisposed to assume that a person with certain things is happy and another who doesn't have those status symbols isn't.

    Thanks again for all your contributions to the conversation!

  10. YearofBooks says

    I've always been bothered by the very narrow definition of success that focuses on wealth. As a college librarian I see a lot attention being paid to achieving this sort of "success". There is much ado from college administration about how we can get into the U.S. News rankings, and how much more money College graduates make than non-graduates. Ironically, today I saw this article from the New York Times that is about exactly this. It mentions that 12% of letter carriers are college grads, and tries to make the point that the college degree was therefore unnecessary. There is no mention of the value of learning for learning sake. You cannot put a monetary value on that.

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