The right picture of success


Last week, I shared some of the wrong definitions of success that so many of us believe in. I shared my belief that they’re either wrong, or at best, incomplete. I believe success is ultimately a journey.

So how do you get started on the success journey? What does it take to be a success?

The picture of success isn’t the same for any two people, because we’re all created differently – as unique individuals. But the process is the same for everyone. It’s based on principles that do not change. After many years of knowing successful people and studying the subject, I have developed the following definition of success:

Success is . . .

knowing your purpose in life,

growing to reach your maximum potential, and

sowing seeds that benefit others.

You can see by this definition why success is a journey rather than a destination. No matter how long you live or what you decide to do in life, you will never exhaust your capacity to grow toward your potential, nor will you run out of opportunities to help others. When you see success as a journey, then you never have the problem of trying to “arrive” at an elusive final destination. And you’ll never find yourself in a position where you’ve accomplished some final goal – only to discover that you’re still unfulfilled and searching for something else to do.

Another benefit of focusing on the journey of success instead of on arriving at a destination or achieving a goal is that you have the potential to become a success today. The very moment that you make the shift to finding your purpose, growing to your potential, and helping others, successful is something you are right now, not something you vaguely hope one day to be.

How do you see success? Do you see it as a journey or process? Or have you been captivated by some of the wrong definitions, like money, happiness, possession, power, or achievement? Let’s talk more about what I believe to be the right definition and how to pursue each of the three aspects noted above.

Knowing Your Purpose

I believe that God created every person for a purpose. As psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. Everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.” Each of us has a purpose for which we were created. Our responsibility – and our greatest joy – is to identify it.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you identify your purpose:

For what am I searching? All of us have a strong desire set in our hearts, something that speaks to our deepest thoughts and feelings, something that sets our souls on fire. Some people have a strong sense of what that is when they’re only children. Others take half their lifetime to discover it. But no matter what, it’s there. We only need to find it.

Why was I created? One of the exciting things about life is that each of us is different. No one else in the world has exactly the same gifts, talents, background, or future. That’s one of the reasons it would be a serious mistake to try to be someone other than ourselves.

Think about the unique mix of abilities you have, the resources available to you, your own personal history, and the opportunities around you. If you objectively identify these factors and discover the desire of your heart, you will have done a lot toward discovering your purpose in life.

Do I believe in my potential? No one can consistently act in a manner inconsistent with the way he sees himself. If you don’t believe that you have great potential, you will never try to reach it. And if you aren’t willing to work toward reaching your potential, you will never be successful.

We should all take the advice of President Theodore Roosevelt. He said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” If we do that with our eyes fixed on our life purpose, what else can be expected of us?

When do I start? Some people live their lives from day to day, allowing others to dictate what they do and how they do it. They never try to discover their true purpose for living. Others know their purpose, yet never act on it. They’re waiting for inspiration or permission or an invitation to get started. But if they wait much longer, they’ll never get going. So the answer to the question, “When do I start?” is “NOW.”

Growing to Your Potential

Novelist H.G. Wells said that wealth, notoriety, place, and power are no measures of success whatsoever. The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have been and what we have become. In other words, success comes as the result of growing to our potential.

It’s been said that our potential is God’s gift to us, and what we do with it is our gift to him. But at the same time, our potential is probably our greatest untapped resource. Henry Ford said, “There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.”

We have nearly limitless potential, yet few ever try to reach it. Why? The answer lies in this: We can do anything, but we can’t do everything. Many people let everyone around them decide what their agenda is in life. As a result, they never really dedicate themselves to their purpose in life. They become a jack of all trades, master of none – rather than a jack of few trades, focused on one.

If that describes you more than you’d like, you’re probably ready to take steps to make a change. Here are four principles to put you on the road to growing toward your potential:

1.  Concentrate on one main goal. Nobody ever reached her potential by scattering herself in twenty directions. Reaching your potential requires focus. That’s why it’s so important for you to discover your purpose. Once you’ve decided where to focus your attention, then you must decide what you are willing to give up to do it. And that’s really crucial. There can be no success without sacrifice. The two go hand in hand. If you desire to accomplish little, sacrifice little. But if you want to accomplish much, be willing to sacrifice much.

2.  Concentrate on continual improvement. Commitment to continual improvement is the key to reaching our potential – and to being successful. Each day you can become a little bit better than you were yesterday. It puts you one step closer to your potential. And you’ll also find that what you get as the result of your growth is not nearly as important as what you become along the way.

3.  Forget the past. My friend Jack Hayford said, “The past is a dead issue, and we can’t gain any momentum moving toward tomorrow if we are dragging the past behind us.” Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people do; they drag the past with them wherever they go.  And as a result, they never make any progress.

I like the attitude of Cyrus Curtis who once owned the Saturday Evening Post. He had a sign hanging in his office that said, “Yesterday ended last night.” It was his way of reminding himself and his employees that the past is done, and we should be looking forward, not back.

4.  Focus on the future. That’s where your potential lies, ahead of you – no matter whether you’re eight, eighteen, forty-eight, or eighty. You still have room to improve yourself. You can become better tomorrow than you are today. As the Spanish proverb says, “He who does not look ahead remains behind.”

Sowing Seeds That Benefit Others

When you know your purpose in life and are growing to reach your maximum potential, you’re well on your way to being a success. But there’s one more important part to the success journey: helping others. Without that aspect, the journey can be a lonely and shallow experience.

It’s been said that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. Austrian born physician Albert Schweitzer stated it even more strongly: “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” For him, the success journey led to Africa where he served people for many years.

For you, sowing seeds that benefit others probably won’t mean traveling to another country to serve the poor – unless that is the purpose you were born to fulfill. (And if it is, you won’t be satisfied until that’s what you’re doing.) However, if you’re like most people, helping others is something you can do right here at home, whether it’s spending more time with your family, developing an employee who shows potential, helping people in the community, or simply putting your own desires on hold for the sake of your team at work. The key is to find your purpose and help others while you’re pursuing it. As entertainer Danny Thomas said, “All of us are born for a reason, but all of us don’t discover why. Success in life has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.”

The success journey will not look the same for everyone, because the picture of success is different for every person. What doesn’t change are the principles used to take the journey. They can be applied at home, in school, at the office, on the ball field, and in church. It doesn’t matter where you are now. You can learn and apply these ideas. You can be successful today.

 From Your Road Map for Success

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  1. 1
    Randy Crane says:

    I think you’re right on here, John, and the additional questions & suggestions you give are very powerful and beneficial. Knowing what we mean by “success” helps give focus, direction, and value to our efforts, and a bad definition sets us up for a life of futility.

    If we don’t discover, and then strive to live out, our purpose, we are being poor stewards of what God has given us, and if we don’t use what He has given us to benefit others we are being disobedient. Personally, I don’t want to be known as either of those!

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. 2
    Goddy says:

    Thanks for sharing John, I enjoy reading your blog.

  3. 3

    Wow, how impactful! I can be a success every day of my life, and still never arrive at it. The continuity of this is overwhelming and exhilarating!

    Sharing this everywhere I can.

    Be blessed!

    • 3.1
      Randy Crane says:

      I know just what you mean, Judy! One statement that really opened my eyes was describing success as “the progressive realization of worthwhile goals.” I believe there’s more to it than that, but this it’s a key piece.

  4. 4
    RITA JAMES says:

    thank you Mr Maxwell for this great insight.i had heard this sometime in the past,but reading it here gives me such understanding.especially on using as much potential as i have been given by God,and not allowing it waste.this blog has opened my eyes to me,i can do more and the time is NOW.

    God bless you

  5. 5

    Such an amazing word. Giving back and helping those around you grow is what will help you succeed in today’s world where everyone is focused on themselves. Truly the heart of a servant leader. Thank you for all you do John.

  6. 6
    gerhard hamutenya says:

    This is superb john, your inspired lesson make me grow every day as part of success. this is a true journey iam going through with you and other, never too late to learn whether young or old, success being a journey you are part of my journey in life for an exampler to what you are doing for others rather than taking credit of being success valued on what you accomplish and gain for yourself, it is what you do for others”

    i like the words and quote ” yesterday ended last night”the past is done and should focus forward, ” backward never forward ever” ” he who does not look ahead remains behind”
    thanks john appreciate your teaching and inspiration, keep up the good work!!

  7. 7
    reinhardt says:

    thank you for shaping our knife mr. maxwell.

  8. 8
    Jason Pulley says:

    “There can be no success without sacrifice. The two go hand in hand. If you desire to accomplish little, sacrifice little. But if you want to accomplish much, be willing to sacrifice much.”

    Well said.

    Reminds me of taking risks…
    We are often scared to take risks because of the possible consequences. The truth is, no one gets anywhere without doing so. We risk our lives everyday just driving to work, going to school, or risk a bad outcome when providing feedback to an emotional employee. If we never took those risks we would never hold a job, better ourselves, or enhance others to fulfill the needs of the organization and increase their self worth.
    Put yourself out there and take a chance on life and take a chance on those around you. Accept that you may fail, but know you will never succeed without trying.

    • 8.1

      Outstanding! …I have experienced the fear of taking risks more times than I am able to number! However, I have NEVER felt more successful at any other time than those in which I actually TAKE THAT RISK… the risk of both failure AND success, in the pursuit of my chosen and worthy endeavor…… again, outstanding!

      • 8.1.1
        Jason Pulley says:

        Thanks Michael. It can be quite liberating when we make it through our failures to obtain our ultimate goals. It is what makes life worth living!

  9. 9

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  10. 10
    Jack Jones says:

    We will suffer to enter the Kingdom of heaven…. The Bible doesnt talk of success in the NT. It talks of suffering. Persecution, people being stoned, insulted, harrassed. Giving up all they own for the poor, and in turn becoming poor. Shunning wealth (like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa).
    Blessed are the poor. Not blessed are the succesful.

    The other day, as a Pastor that works with addicts, I spoke with someone who had suffered two years of chronic backpain and subsquently become addicted to prescriptuion drugs. That person was a person of faith. You think we should preach about success to those in such predicaments? Suffering is a part of life and those truly out there for the Gospel experience it ALL the time .(it comes to all eventually and yes it will also come to you John – perhaps in old old age, but it will come). But if you truly step out for Christ you will suffer. That is inline with His words of course – not my own. As a Nurse I see it come to ALL. It is not the road to success that holds us up. It is the road of suffering and understanding that suffering that creates character, perserverance and hope (Rom 5:3).



    • 10.1
      Randy Crane says:

      I think it’s fine to talk about success in such cases–depending on how we define success. If we mean “no problems”, “lots of money”, etc. then of course that’s a problem. But what if we define it as John Maxwell does here, “knowing your purpose in life, growing to reach your maximum potential, and sowing seeds that benefit others.” Is that not something everyone can do?

      Yes, suffering is a very real part of the Christian life, and it’s an important part. But we don’t suffer for suffering’s sake. We suffer to be made like Christ (who completed the work the father gave Him to do, which sounds like a good definition on success to me), and to “press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

      Suffering lays all along the road to success, and success comes through Christ and His power at work within us as we suffer, overcome, and grow in Him.

  11. 11
    Richard says:

    Very insightful post. In terms of “dragging your past behind you”, I think this is a problem for a lot of people because you are your experiences. Your past experiences and interactions shape the person you are in the present and more often than not, the future as well. I do think it’s a good rule of thumb to forget the past, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wise to not carry some parts of it with you into your future. The key is which parts.

    • 11.1

      Great Point! I have heard it said, “the past is a great guidepost, but a horrible hitching post.” It is important to carry those pieces of our past from which we are able to learn… and leave where they sit the pieces which would only hinder our present and future action…… well said.

      • 11.1.1
        Randy Crane says:

        “The past is a great guidepost, but a horrible hitching post.” I love this quote/thought!

        (By the way, I think I also found the original quote: “The past is a guidepost, not a hitching post.” ~ L. Thomas Holdcroft :) )

    • 11.2
      Jason Pulley says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Richard. I like talking about this subject. My wife and I had a debate on this subject about a month ago which lasted a few hours and was quite fun. She believes our past will always catch up with us, defines who we are, and will influence where we end up in life. I couldn’t have disagreed more! Sure, our past may have brought us to the here and now. But it is ultimately up to us to change that path and either allow that past to control our future or use it as an educational tool to make changes for our future. It may take more courage for some of us than it will others, but we are all capable of making a choice and acting upon it.

      Sure, the past is what influenced our decisions and choices along our journey through life. I have to agree that we can’t “put the past behind us” because it may actually be what wakes us up to change ourselves and our futures. I suppose it is up to the individual to decide which parts to remember (that will lead us) and which to forget (that will hinder us). And Michael put it well about the past being a guidepost rather than a hitching post. Thank you for that Michael.

      • 11.2.1

        Many thanks returned, Jason! …and thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts and insights. Sometimes, our knowledge carries more benefit to others than to ourselves… and hearing WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW from someone elses mind means far more to us. Congratulations to all of you, on your contribution to all of us!

  12. 12
    Gustino Kachingwe says:

    Very inspiring.
    It sounds to be something worthy grasping. Keep it in touch John!
    Jesus be praised!

  13. 13
    Todd Stocker says:

    I recently hammered out my life’s mission statement which has not only sped me in the right direction but has kept me from doing something off topic. Here’s what I came up with:

    is to honor God by adding value and leadership to the lives of people around me. Through creative communication and innovative resourcing, I will help facilitate positive life change in my personal relationships and throughout the world.”

  14. 14

    Wonderful and balanced view, John. With focus on the journey, fulfilling our unique purpose, growth, and service becomes a life of joy and many “successes” along the way.

  15. 15
    Kent says:

    Success needs very high EQ and success is not a destination, it is a journey. One of the great component in success is KEEP LEARNING. The moment you don’t give up, you are already success even you haven’t reached your goal yet.

  16. 16

    Yes, we often forget how important the EQ part is in success.

    • 16.1
      Kent says:

      Yes. It is true. If you ask me what is the most important thing in success? It is EQ. I failed before, it is just because of my bad temper. When I realized that, I was too late but anyway, I am now again in business and my business journey is pretty simple, focus on improving your EQ.

  17. 17

    […] what you love? Personally, I don’t think there is a better definition than the one given by John Maxwell: “Success is knowing your purpose in life, growing to reach your maximum potential, and […]

  18. 18
    Lacey Smith says:

    I don’t know about anyone else, but whether it was in school or in the workplace, I’ve always encountered people who I’ve thought are terrible at leading. Some people just naturally know how to be successful and who can lead others in the same direction. But then there are some who are awful at both. I never wanted to be the latter so I’m always looking for ways to grow personally, professionally, and as a leader to be as successful as I can. A friend lent me a book he just read called “How to Avoid the Common Failure” by Michael Horton. It’s a great reference and motivational book to really give you a push in the right direction!

  19. 19
    Rob Moore says:

    That was a very powerful post and I agree with everything shared here about success. Thanks for sharing!