As one year draws to a close and another begins, I can think of no better time to dust off an old post and ask you to ponder the difference between success and significance. Some would say that any discussion along this topic line is nothing more than a semantical debate. However, it is my opinion that those who hold this view truly don’t understand the difference between the two, and are simply attempting to blur lines in order to feel better about themselves. Harsh? Perhaps, but I’ll let you be the judge. In today’s post, I’ll attempt to clearly lay out the differences between success and significance, and why you’ll be better off setting your sights on the latter and not the former…

I believe “success” can be a very dangerous thing in a vacuum…You see, success is in the eye of the beholder, whereas significance is a view of you that is held by others. Complicating matters further, I believe a few successful people actually make the transition to significance, but every person of significance is successful. I want to frame my thoughts on the topic of significance by beginning with an excerpt from my book “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“:

“By the time you reach the CEO level, you should be striving to move beyond success and towards significance. You need to use your network, your fiscal resources, your experience and intellect, as well as your passion to create a legacy that transcends your title…If it seems trite to be asking you to ponder if you are in fact leaving things better than you found them, then I would suggest that you reconsider your values and your vision. As a CEO you have the ability to influence positive changes and to make contributions well beyond those who have not been afforded the same opportunities, and it would be nothing short of tragic for you not to clearly understand this. While it is never too late to begin thinking about finishing well, the simple truth of the matter is that the longer you wait to begin thinking on a significant level, the less significant your legacy will be.”

Let me ask you to spend a few minutes and mull over the following questions:

  1. Do you understand the difference between success and significance?
  2. Did the attainment of your goals lead you closer to success or significance?
  3. Is the pursuit of success or significance driving your quest?
  4. When people describe you do they talk about what you have achieved for yourself or what you’ve accomplished for the benefit of others?

My hope in authoring this post is to have you adjust your thinking when it comes to the definition of success. My clients usually tend to be successful individuals prior to finding me. My goal is to simply help them leverage their success into becoming significant individuals over the course of our dealings. The sad reality is that far too many people either confuse success with significance, or they are so focused on success that they are actually blind to the meaning of significance. The simple truth of the matter is that with the proper focus you can have your cake and eat it too.

Just take a look around and you’ll see that most people use their knowledge, resources, and experience to acquire things in an attempt to satisfy their personal desires, which in their minds constitutes success. Contrast this with the people that use their knowledge, resources, and experience to serve and benefit others, which by my standards constitutes significance.

Just as success must be defined before it can be achieved, so must significance. While both require sacrifice, success comes at a great price and is often based upon the compromise of values. Significance on the other hand is driven by personal values and is a gift that cannot be purchased.

Let me use an example that contrasts a politician (often successful and rarely significant) with a statesman (usually both)…it has been said that a politician is concerned with winning the election and a statesman is concerned about future generations. The politician makes promises and is motivated by pride, ego, notoriety, and personal success. The statesman keeps commitments, is motivated by service above and beyond self, and by making a lasting difference. The typical politician spews tired rhetoric while lining their pockets, and has little hope for becoming significant. The true statesman is a breath of fresh air whose only pursuit is to make a positive difference in the lives of others. The politician in pursuit of his/her goal will live in infamy or insignificance. By contrast, the statesman in pursuit of the best interests of others will become both successful and significant.

Sure, for those “who get it” success and significance are one and the same, but for most professionals success begins and ends with the achievement of a certain list of personal goals with little regard to the impact on others. These people confuse success with significance, and regardless of their wealth and professional accomplishments, they won’t accomplish the true greatness that only comes through making significant contributions to something other than one’s self. I don’t care how your resume reads, what your net worth is, or what your W-2 shows…what I care about is your motivation, and what you do with what you have.

Let me be clear that I have nothing against those that have acquired material success, just those that have acquired their success at either the expense of others or without regard for others. I have little respect for those who live largely and give a buck ninety-eight to charity at the end of the year just to feel better about themselves. By contrast, I am always impressed by those who choose a life of service over personal glory, or those who understand how to leverage their personal success into significance.

While most of my clients have acquired significant material possessions, they just don’t live their lives according to a “he or she who has the most toys wins” philosophy. They don’t give because their accountant told them to, or for estate planning purposes, they give to make a difference. They don’t throw trivial contributions to a variety of charities to see their name appear on donor’s lists, they make substantial contributions (usually with little if any self-promotion). It all boils down to motivation…are you solely seeking to have fun, fame, fortune, and recognition, or are you seeking to serve and benefit others with what you have?

It is my opinion that when you start to define your personal success by the value you add to the lives of others you have arrived as a mature human being who possesses true influence and has become a person of significance. My challenge to you is this…set the chinning bar very high for yourself by reevaluating your goals and objectives to ensure that you are on a path towards significance. Don’t allow yourself to become blinded by your success, rather leverage your success in an attempt to make a lasting and significant legacy for which you and your family can be proud.