Thought Catalysts: Neil Pasricha on Defining Success

September 14, 2016 Neil Pasricha, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


“How can I be successful?”

That’s a strange question I sometimes receive and it always catches me off guard. Because what is success? Is it selling a million copies? Winning awards? Or just feeling satisfied with your work?

To me, there are three types of success.

The trick is remembering you can’t have them all and then figuring out which one you’re aiming at. It looks like this:

  • Sales success is about sales. Your book is a commercial hit! Everybody’s reading it, everybody’s talking about it, you’re on TV. You sell hundreds then thousands then millions of copies. Dump trucks beep while backing into your garage to pour out endless royalty payments.
  • Social success means you’re a success among your peers. People you respect. Critical success. The industry loves you! The New York Times reviews your book. You’re shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
  • Self success is in your head. It’s invisible! Only you know if you have it. Self success means you achieved what you wanted to achieve. For yourself. You’re deeply proud and satisfied with your work.

The 3 Ss of Success apply to all industries, professions and aspects of life. Success is not one-dimensional. You must decide what kind of success you want.

Are you in marketing? Sales success means your product flew off the shelves and your numbers blew away forecasts. Social success means you were written up in prestigious magazines. Nominated for an award. Recognized by the CEO. Self success? That’s the same. How do you feel about your accomplishments?

Are you a teacher? Sales success means you’re offered promotions. Asked if you’re interested in becoming VP one day. Social success means you’re presenting at conferences and mentoring new teachers; the principal talks about your work. Self success? That’s the same. How do you feel about your accomplishments?

Here’s the catch: it is impossible to have all three successes.

Picture this triangle like a wobbly board at an old-school gym. If you push down on two sides but third side springs into the air. I say this because I’ve never seen it and I don’t think you should aspire to it.

How so?

Well, sales success can block self success. That’s what happened to me when I got hooked on bestseller lists. Personal goals took a back seat to more tangible commercial goals. “Make hay while the sun shines,” even if you feel like going to bed. This is the artist who sells out. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But you can see how commercial success blocks personal success sometimes.

And self success doesn’t necessarily have a marketable strategy — so no sales or social success follows. The birthday cakes you bake for your daughter. That incredible lesson you put your heart into for weeks. The backyard deck you built with your bare hands. You wouldn’t expect royalty payments or critical reviews from those endeavours. You’re not trying to sell cakes, lessons or decks. You could. But that wasn’t your goal.

Lastly, critical darlings rarely sell. Social success can block sales success. Let me give you an example: one of my favourite movies last year was Spotlight. Tense, dramatic, I was glued to the screen. The movie won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. There is no higher honour. But its total domestic box office was $45 million (U.S.).

Furious 7 made $353 million at the domestic box office.

Which would you have rather made?

Know which of the 3 Ss of Success you want.

Pick just one.


And fire.

This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star, August 2016.


Neil Pasricha is a best-selling author, who focuses on personal development and happiness. To read more of his posts, visit his page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Neil speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at 

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