What is the definition of success?

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On January 1966, Indira Gandhi made her mark as the first female Prime Minister of India. She served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. In 1999 BBC poll, Gandhi was voted “Woman of the Millennium”.

Gandhi (no relation to “the” Mahatma Gandhi) grew up under her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first Prime Minister of India and a key figure in the Indian independence movement. After studying at Oxford, she returned to India and served unofficially as her father’s personal assistant, giving her significant influence. When her father passed away in 1964, Gandhi was appointed Minister of Information and Broadcasting.

Two years later, she rose to become Prime Minister with the help of the Congress Party President, K. Kamaraj. Yet, his rationale for doing so was less about her competency and more about the perceived weakness of her gender. Kamaraj, along with his political colleagues, saw her as a prime candidate because they believed she could be used as a puppet.

However, Kamaraj and his fellow political leaders would be proven wrong by Gandhi’s decisiveness and strong will. She gained popularity through her socialist policies, which sought to help those in poverty. Her biggest accomplishment came in 1971, when an Indian victory over Pakistan led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

A Notable Figure with Deep Struggles

Despite all her achievements in office, her terms as Prime Minister weren’t without serious struggles. Partially due to rising oil prices, the Indian economy struggled. The combination of inflation, drought, and falling living standards led Gandhi to call a state of emergency in 1975.

In the process, opponents were arrested, constitutional rights were revoked, and the press was censored. These actions were seen as draconian since they went against democratic principles. They also stamped Gandhi as a dictator-type figure.

From a personal standpoint, Gandhi suffered a number of tragedies. At age 25, she married Feroze Gandhi. They had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, and were married for 18 years until her husband died of a heart attack.

Of her two sons, Gandhi chose the younger, Sanjay, to be her political heir. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash in 1980 at age 33. After this event, she persuaded her reluctant remaining son Rajiv to quit his job as a pilot and enter politics. After Gandhi’s death, he served as Prime Minister until 1989, when he was assassinated by Tamil Tigers in 1991.

As for Gandhi, she was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after Operation Blue Star, which caused heavy damage to the Golden Temple and the deaths of Sikhs inside the temple.

By all accounts, Indira Gandhi is a notable figure. Without a doubt, she is also a powerful figure. Gandhi rose to the top position in Indian society as a female during a turbulent period in India’s history.

But was her life what you would define as successful?

On October 30, 1984, the day before her death, she gave these words in her final speech:

“I have lived a long life, and I am proud that I spend the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breath, and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”

These are striking words, particularly before her untimely death. They also point to how proud she is for what she achieved. After all, Gandhi served her country in a highly respected position.

Yet as you can see, there is also a dark side to her success. A number of her actions and methodologies were highly controversial, making her unpopular amongst certain groups.

In her personal life, she witnessed the early death of her husband. Both of her sons died prematurely, one partially because of the decisions she made. Gandhi herself was assassinated.

While she achieved a lot, she also suffered a lot. She was loved. She was hated. Some saw their lives improve under her leadership. Others saw it erode.

Success is complicated, indeed.

What is Success, as Defined by Successful People?

What is success, exactly? Is it about being with loved ones? Excelling in your work? Or simply being happy?

Society tends to have a narrow perception about success. We use metrics such as money, influence, or performance level. We look at someone who has done something extraordinary such as developing a widely used product, creating popular artwork, or leading others, and place that person as a role model.

So what do people whom we categorize as “successful” have to say about the matter? Let’s take a look:

Bill Gates: Despite the Microsoft cofounder’s net worth, his priority is on relationships and improving the lives of others. When asked, Gates made a reference to his friend: “Warren Buffett has always said the measure [of success] is whether the people close to you are happy and love you.” He also added his own thoughts by saying, “It is also nice to feel like you made a difference – inventing something or raising kids or helping people in need.”

Maya Angelou: Author Maya Angelou focused on the importance of passion for your work and believed that “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

Richard Branson: The Virgin Group founder measures success by the way it makes you feel. According to him, “Too many people measure how successful they are by how much money they make or the people that they associate with. In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are.”

The definitions vary from person to person. Some are about how success makes you feel, some are about how success makes others feel. There is the mention of being happy with yourself and your work.

But if there’s one thing that ties the abovementioned individuals together, it’s that they all excelled at something. The person performed at the top of his or her field and therefore impacted the lives of many. Hence, they became successful.

The question is: At what cost?

Is it worth pursuing a risky endeavor and getting hurt, emotionally or physically? Is it worth neglecting other areas of your life because you dedicated all your time to one component? Or is it about balance – having most parts of your life hover around average or slightly above average, with nothing spectacular to show?

Is success lopsided or is it even?

The Definition of Success Depends On You

Different people have different perspectives on what success entails. Someone whom others consider as having lived a bland existence may consider his own life a success. Not much excitement happened, but there were also few tragedies in the process.

Someone who led a rollercoaster of a life with all the highs of triumphs and the lows of suffering may be content with how things unfolded. All the pain was worth the taste of victory (or at least the attempt of victory).

But never mind them. What matters is how do you define success? What are the standards that you’ve set out for yourself? What are your expectations?

Perhaps Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said it best. In the book, he writes, “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of your funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.”

Because ultimately, it isn’t about what others expect from you or how they feel about your actions. In the end, you make your decisions and live with them, knowing whether or not they were the right ones.

This article first appeared on Jump Start Your Dream Life.