Kristen Cooper: Success can—and should—be whatever you want

How do you define success for yourself?

This is one of the most common questions asked by humans in modern society, yet few of us answer it with more than just a few fleeting thoughts. We benchmark ourselves by those who have been extended different opportunities and privileges. Yet, too often, we feel shame and disappointment for not achieving what our peers have accomplished.

Psychologist Lynn Hynes has a fresh take: “We adhere to outdated social norms about success and need to replace old ideas with something more truthful.” Hynes recently led a conversation about the definition of success with four generations of professionals at a Mental Wellness for Business program (hosted by The Startup Ladies). Their answers changed my own definition of success. I invite you to ask yourself this important question and see if any of the answers shared below resonate with you at this stage in your life.

“Success means the body is able to support the strength of the mind.”

While the mind becomes finely tuned over time, the body naturally loses muscle mass and gains weight more easily. Roz Harris, owner of Fit Chicks, has taught me that, “You can do anything for 35 seconds.” She says this to cheer me on while getting through the final portion of a weight training set. It works every time. Roz taught me that I “need to invest in future Kristen by moving now.” Reframing the “why” helps me achieve long-term goals by engaging in short-term tasks—even when I don’t want to.

“Success means returning to the quiet self.”

Lauren Emily Vaz, a junior from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, was wise beyond her years when she dropped this nugget. A lot of us will do anything to avoid quietly sitting still. It’s difficult to get off the hamster wheel running at full speed in your head. Hynes encourages a mindfulness practice that provides time and space to do the “inner work.” “When we are reflective and clear about what success means to us, we can avoid behaviors that don’t align with who we want to be,” Hynes said. This practice can help people avoid self-sabotaging behaviors that could keep one stuck in a comfort zone.

“Success means we have the right people tending to our fire.”

Everyone gasped in agreement when Hynes said this. She got us to think about the relationships we have versus the relationships we want and need in our lives. We talked about how all humans need a personal board of advisers to help them become the person they are meant to be. Certainly, every company needs a board of advisers to help founders avoid blind spots and connect to potential clients and investors. It takes time and strategy to identify the people who need to be in our lives, and it requires consistent effort to connect with those people and nurture the relationships.

“Success means deepening into yourself in the midst of the company of others.”

Gayle King always said one thing to her best friend, Oprah, whenever Oprah got nervous about interviewing someone: “Just be yourself.” What was super encouraging to Oprah was anxiety-inducing to me in my 20s and early 30s. It takes a really long time to be the truest version of yourself everywhere you go.

When I was 38 and redirected my career path from fundraising to tech, my therapist of 15 years, Dr. Hanna Cohen, told me, “You don’t have to prove yourself; just be yourself.” That time, it landed. I just wanted to learn and be around people who could teach me new things. No pretending. No imposter syndrome. Just being who I was, at that moment in time, learning and connecting—without hesitation. That mindset made the transition so easy.

“Success means that the work I do now leaves a legacy when I’m gone.”

Cindy Dunston Quirk, CEO and founder of Scout & Zoe’s, said if the work she does now contributes to no dog ever suffering from cancer long after she’s gone, her time on Earth will have been a success. She’s growing her pet-treat company, creating jobs, and using some of the profits to cure canine cancer. Her personal and company mission is so clear, she is never without purpose. That kind of clear vision really helps to get you through the tough times.

What was most surprising and exciting to me was that, amid a group of entrepreneurs and capitalists, money was the byproduct of focusing on much bigger things. This exercise got me to think differently about how I want to spend my time and grow my own company. I would love to hear what your definition of success is as a business leader, entrepreneur or investor. If you want to share it, email me at Kristen@TheStartupLadies.org.•

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Cooper is founder and CEO of The Startup Ladies.

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