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Success vs. Significance


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 sites 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 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 2010 goals lead you closer to success or significance?
  3. Is the pursuit of success or significance driving your quest in 2011?
  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 which 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 in 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 large 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 insure 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.


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    Steve-Success Factors

    December 27, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I can only echo what you have said here. I have reflected on how some of the top professional athletes have ‘fulfilled’ the ‘American Dream,’ yet have shipwrecked their marriages, or who knows what effects there has been on their kids.

    I pass no judgement on some of these athletes, for it is every man and woman’s story. The key is to learn from them, and to make success in our private lives as important as in our public lives.



    December 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Hi Steve:

    Thanks for you thoughtful comment and observations. I concur that it is of no use to sit in judgment of others, and applaud you for the maturity that position displays. Many find it all too easy to take aim on a perceived easy target. One can only hope that we all learn from the tragedies of others without taking pleasure in them.

    Best wishes Steve…



    March 21, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Mike

    One of the more interesting posts I've read on significance vs success. I really do think that people mix the two up on a very regular basis.

    Taking from my own experience, I've been lucky to be successful (measured by quick progression up the career ladder, material comforts etc) and yet I'm still working on being professionally significant. It's one of my great drivers to achieve significance in what I do – even if that doesn't necessarily mean success as defined by any metric you care to choose…

    Thanks for an interesting read!



      March 21, 2010 at 7:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment and the kind words. Neil, with your great driver focused on the right areas I'm confident you'll find the significance you are aspiring to. Best wishes Neil.



    November 4, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Inspiring post! Success is temporal. Significance is eternal.

    For all those of us who may feel we've missed 'Success' in life I offer these words of encouragement from Admiral Chester Nimitz: "God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.



      November 4, 2010 at 7:19 am

      Thanks for sharing Ron. I agree with your sentiments. I also appreciate the words of encouragement from Nimitz. Best wishes Ron.



    December 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Dear Mike,

    You are so persuasive for those how missed the fundamental sense of our life.
    Success based in bad action show only it is insignificant!!!! ( what I do for others)
    We have the duty to influence for positive changes and only preparation is the great differentiator.
    Our life cannot be measured from the bank balance but by service.
    I thank you for this opportunity to develop the meaning in real life and make sense of this world essential.
    “To fulfill your destiny, you don't need what other's have. You need only what lies within.” – Joel Osteen => True wisdom from real experience.
    Thank you.



      December 21, 2010 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Sami:

      Thanks for your comment and the kind words. I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. While I don't usually find myself in agreement with Joel Osteen (not a big fan of prosperity theology), I agree with the quote of his you selected. Thanks for stopping by Sami…



    December 22, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Great post Mike. I stand amazed at how long it takes us to get it. We spend our thirties and forties building success only to find that it is not what we think. By the time we reach fifty, I think we understand that it is not about us, and we have little time left to make a difference. We also realize the we truly must do it by contributing our wisdom and failures to others. Thanks for the reminder.



      December 22, 2010 at 10:41 am

      Thanks as always for your insights and observatons Tom. I greatly value your opinions and experience.



    December 26, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    I would use this technique with caution!
    The emptiness is only temporarily full with feelings of false altruism. When you are encouraged to do something meaningful at the suggestion of your shrink, it’s self serving, not altruistic.
    I’ve seen people become addicted to this false high, and end up giving so much of themselves, that they’ve nothing left, emotionally speaking. People who help to their detriment. Using volunteering or “being significant” as a way to avoid dealing with their own painful issues.



      December 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

      Thanks for your comment. What I was able to take away from your comment was insightful if viewed with perspective. "False" beliefs, a lack of sincerity, or any belief system that is not genuine can be harmful. What I shared in this post was not advice asking readers to fool themselves, but I was asking them to check their motivations and assess their aspirations. Doing anything for the wrong reasons is not likely to turn out well. Thanks for stopping by.



    December 27, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Mike, thank you for your thought provoking discussion about success vs. significance. I can see how our beliefs about success and significance can impact our daily lives. What impressions am I leaving with those around me? How am I influencing them? What are my contributions? Success does not mean much without significance.


    Rich Largman

    January 6, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Hi Mike! Great post and distinction between success and significance. It was reassuring to measure myself by these standards and see that I have always been on the right track. I am grateful that my life so far has been aligned with the concept of significance. I think one reason for that is that I always had a strong sense of purpose/my purpose and who I am. At first it was an unconscious sense of it, but some years back, after spending several months doing an exercise from Stephen Covey on designing a personal mission statement, that purpose became conscious. I write about the importance of that purpose for one's success and satisfaction on my blog this month (www.empireofhope.com). Here though is my question and struggle – How does one turn their significance into success?



      January 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

      Hi Rich:

      Thanks for your comment as well as for connecting me with Maggie (we've now exchanged emails). With regard to your question: "How does one turn their significance into success?" My answer is this – not to be trite or dismissive, but when significance is the foundation success is sure to follow. Best wishes Rich…

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