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What Does Professional Success Really Mean?

By Delia Lloyd April 19, 2023 Lifestyle

One night, as we were filling the dishwasher, my daughter surprised me with a question: “Do you feel that you have been successful in your career?”

It wasn’t so long ago that I would have answered with a categorical “No.” After 30 years of zig-zagging in and out of assorted career paths, trying them on and then – Goldilocks-style – deciding they didn’t quite fit, I’ve never felt like a professional success.

In the last few years, after I finally managed to create a job for myself that I love, all that changed. But my daughter’s question did get me thinking about how we define success.

Success as Fame

When I was younger, I equated success with fame. A friend of mine – and fellow-traveller in the itinerant career trajectory – once confided to me that she had always wanted to be Charlie Rose.

Rose is the erstwhile television journalist who, before he was sacked for sexually harassing women, interviewed anyone and everyone in the political and cultural world. I responded, “I want to be on the Charlie Rose show,” by which I meant that I wanted someone to ask me to narrate my rise to stardom.

I have a few friends who’ve achieved this metric for success. They’re known quantities. And I do envy them. But as I age, I find that I don’t hanker after public recognition nearly as much as I used to. Over the years, success has become something much more intrinsic than extrinsic. Increasingly, it’s also much more about giving back.

Success as Money

Both of my kids have occasionally pointed out that I could make so much more money if I expanded my consulting clientele to encompass more companies in London’s financial district or more universities in the United States. While I’m happy to do both things, my kids don’t seem to get that I’m not necessarily looking to make that much more money.

I know loads of people who define success in monetary terms. And while, in a few cases, it has definitely made them happier, for a lot of them, it hasn’t. That’s another thing that comes with age – realizing that money, while useful to achieving certain ends, can only take you so far.

Success as Lack of Fear

Yet another way to define success is following your bliss without fear. I find that the people I admire most in the world aren’t necessarily those who are rich or famous, but those who discovered a passion and pursued it, Devil be damned.

That list encompasses a wide swath of people, including (in the rich and famous category), the writer Philip Roth who – whatever you think of him – believed in his own “crap.” It also includes the rock star Prince, who never conformed to anyone’s expectations about the sort of music he would play or even what name he would record under.

But the list also encompasses my Pilates instructor; a loud, Portuguese woman who shouts semi-inappropriate, border-line obscenities during our classes to urge us all on. It also includes Glen Wright, the author of Academia Obscura, who started a twitter feed – and wrote a book – all about the weird quirks of scholarly life. Both are laugh-out-loud funny, insightful and deeply – well – obscure.

Success as Perseverance

One final way to measure success is by how hard you try. My daughter occasionally writes for a local, community newspaper in London. One day, not long ago, when thumbing through it, I happened upon an entry she’d written on the topic of “role models.”

She hadn’t told me about this article, so I was taken aback when I discovered it. It read as follows:

My role model is my mother. I admire her for never giving up on her dream job, and for not being afraid to change careers as many times as it took her to feel professionally fulfilled. I also look up to my mum because of her steadfast belief that hard work always pays off; if she wants to get something done, she will not stop until she has achieved that which she set out to achieve. What will power!

I was deeply touched. Most of all, however, I was proud. Because I realized that I’d managed to transmit something to my daughter that was so much more important than anything I’ve ever written or produced. I’d bequeathed her the value of hard work, tenacity and pushing yourself to keep getting out there and trying.

And that alone made me feel like a success.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

How do you define professional success? Has this definition changed with time? Why? What is your greatest success – professional or personal – that you are proud of? Please share with the community!

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I started an engineering consultancy with my husband when i was 48yo. We now have a team of 15. I think professional success for me is the freedom to make decisions. Currently we work a bit hard but we have freedom to be able to consider how to change the business to delegate more. I feel successful but atthesame time, I sortofdontbelieve it. We have won a few awards. Not sure ofnext step when i retire.

Delia Lloyd

I like this idea, Ingrid. I now run my own business and I also really value the autonomy that comes with it!


Hi Delia! Wow, thank you for this article on professional success which I have not considered except when I think of “climbing the ladder” so to speak. In each of our careers, there must be some “higher” level of achievement and I am sure each of us have wanted that at some point in our professional lives. In my professional life as an educator, I would have loved to be the Director!! But that was wishing thinking but not really something that would have made me happy or fulfilled. I think I have learned that professional success is something that comes from within and that the people you serve recognizes that every day to you for it. I am an educator to very young children and I know that am truly making a difference in the lives of young children and their families. I feel “success” when I can negotiate with a group of 2-3 year olds to move in a certain direction and how we need to all play nicely together!! Having said all the above, I must admit it was an award that was given out nationally to educators that made me feel validated in my professional life. It gave me more confidence; however, that confidence may have come anyways with age and experience. Sorry for rambling on but I guess the bottom line is that success is in YOU and you don’t need others to validate it. I also raised four boys and I see “success” all over them!!!


Well done Sara!

Delia Lloyd

This is such a lovely reflection, Sara. Thanks so much for writing it. And many congrats on your award!

Alainnah Robertson

Indeed! Very well said! :-)

The Author

Delia Lloyd is an American writer and communications consultant based in London. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, and The BBC World Service. She blogs about adulthood at and is a visiting fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Follow her on Twitter @realdelia.

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