When people talk about success, I always wonder what their definition is. Sure, criteria like celebrity, wealth and power come to mind. But if we buy into that commonly held idea of success—and only that commonly held idea of success—it doesn’t leave a lot of room for other hopes and dreams.
I didn’t realize I had the wrong definition until I reached my 50s, when I found myself doing work I felt I should do—running an investment business to take care of my extended family—alongside pursuing endeavors I felt driven to do because they fueled my larger sense of purpose. While I certainly contribute to my family’s wellbeing by working in the investment business, I would wither without pursuing my dreams. Several times throughout my life, I’ve also pursued what other people told me were the “wrong” dreams.
When I first learned to row, my college coach informed me I was “too small” to go very far—but I ended up on two U.S. Olympic teams and came home from the 1984 games with a silver medal.
When I launched Washington Works, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women on public assistance improve their lives, people told me I was out of my depth—that with my ivy league degree and wealthy upbringing, I lacked the relevant life experience. Nonetheless, through its efforts as a standalone organization and also after it merged with Washington Women’s Education and Employment, Washington Works helped hundreds of women change the trajectory of their lives.
When I set out to become co-owner of a WNBA team, I barely knew the rules of basketball. (In fact, my spouse purchased Basketball for Dummies to jumpstart my crash course.) Now, I’ve helped lead our Seattle Storm franchise for eight years, and I serve on the league’s Board of Governors.
So instead of focusing on stereotypical notions of what you should aspire to, I invite you to adopt this definition instead: Success is whatever you say it is. The corollary to that is this: Don’t let anyone define for you what your life should look like or who you should be.
I strongly believe that having aspirations and dreams, as well as taking them seriously and pursuing them, is critical. A dream that is deeply meaningful to you, one that galvanizes you into committed action, makes life worth living. It gets you up on rainy mornings and keeps you going when the cookie crumbles, serving as a source of both motivation and inspiration.
Ignoring other people’s ideas of what I should aspire to has served me well—which is why I encourage you to start figuring out what your own definition of success looks like.
Find out how ballerina Misty Copeland tuned out the noise to find her version of success:
Wondering where to start? First, think about your dreams. I’m not talking about fantasies, the stuff that wishes are made of. I’m talking about the aspirations that take hold of you and your life and won’t let go. The ones you can’t shake off, even if they seem impossible, outlandish and well beyond your reach in the beginning. Depending on your personality and circumstances, you may dream of bettering your own life and that of your family—or of bettering the lives of people in your communities and transforming the world.
Then, figure out why those aspirations matter to you and imagine what will be different once you’re successful. The “why” defines your purpose; let it guide and fuel you.
There’s no criteria that determines whether you’re dreaming the best dream or the right one. You choose which course to send your life down, so listen to yourself. What do you care about? What matters to you? Make sure you answer that question for yourself; after all, it’s your life.
Ginny Gilder is an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, a co-owner of the Seattle Storm and the author of Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX. The mother of three children and stepmother of two, Gilder lives with her wife, Lynn, in Seattle.