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Defining Success in order to Succeed

Defining Success in order to Succeed

Is your definition of success to pass your degree? What if I told you your definition is too weak, too vague and that should you reach the milestone of passing the final exams or thesis component you still won’t achieve the sense of fulfilment you crave? 

Here’s the proven truth about experiencing success in all it’s glory: you need to be specific. You need to apply a level of introspection, decide what success actually means to you. Just you. Not your boss, your partner, or anyone else – just you.

According to Debbie Allen’s book Success is Easy: “The meaning of success is different for each person. You may not fit into other people’s definition of success, but you can give yourself permission to be OK with that. Success is an individual concept. Here’s the exciting part: you get to define and design your own success, which will become the blueprint for you to follow throughout your life. Developing your own success blueprint also means that you get to create success on your own terms.”

“Achieving more success requires you to become more driven and persistent when challenges and obstacles get in the way. As obstacles arise, you must take full responsibility to stay on course. Ask yourself:

  • What obstacles prevent you from achieving success?
  • How will removing these obstacles help you move forward to achieving a higher level of success?
  • How can you then hold yourself accountable for staying on course to achieving the desired level of success?
  • What action steps have you avoided in the past that could have helped you achieve more?

Once you define the action steps that are required to achieve more and understand what’s holding you back, you can finally begin to make big strides as you remain in action.”

Taking time to define success will mean making a conscious decision to shift from a fixed mindset to one of growth. Acknowledge that there will be setbacks but that you have the tenacity to overcome and learn from them. A healthy definition of success is one that contemplates the joy of the journey and the purpose that extends beyond the grand goal. How thrilling will it feel to stand on the graduation stage knowing you’ve celebrated the entire journey?

Start by breaking it down…backwards

Your personal definition of success should break the grand goal down into manageable segments, then further into smaller milestones, and then even further into daily practices. The sum total of your day to day effort will make this goal easier to achieve, and also provide you with the opportunity to celebrate small victories along the way. 


In my experience as an academic performance coach, I’ve seen clients reach their goals in different ways. But it all begins with their expectations. If you expect it to be a slog for twelve long months, it will be. But if you are prepared to take that step back and work on your own definition of success before you start, you’ll find yourself focused and excited to get started on the road ahead.

Let’s take an example. One of the major and often dreaded aspects of writing a thesis is completing the literature review (LR). It is an overwhelming and fairly complex chunk of work. If the goal is to complete this task in two months, the student will have to break down every component of the exercise in order to remain motivated and finish the work. In other words, during week one: 

1. Connect with your supervisor and agree on a mutually acceptable means of communicating.

2. Identify your three/four key constructs (supervisor’s input is essential).

3. Search for five (be explicit) related articles.

4. Construct an appropriate electronic and paper filing system for your resources.

5. Put in the effort to understand the definition of an acceptable academic resource.

6. Ensure your LR template is accessible on your desktop.

7. Write up draft one of your LR table of contents.

8. Backup your work.


Top Tips for Achieving Success

  • Proper planning from the start, if you don’t you won’t be able to prioritize your time and apply yourself effectively.
  • Be realistic with your planning. Don’t put aside four hours a day to work on your thesis unless you really have four hours. This only sets you up for failure. Take family, work and social commitments into account. Factor in time to exercise and relax. If that number from four drops to two as a result, at least you can plan accurately in order to get the work done in time.
  • Be realistic with your goals. Will not achieving a cum-laude really mean you’ve failed?
  • Be flexible. Plan for the unforeseen, always build a buffer into your timelines. If you do this effectively, an unforeseen life or work event will only be a minor setback and not a major crisis.
  • Engage with your writing every day to develop a healthy relationship with your work.
  • Celebrate the small victories. Finished writing that chapter? Crack open the bubbly!