Many CEOs, celebrities and artists have been asked what success means to them. It is always interesting to see what kind of people are usually asked this question in interviews, reports or just simple informal talks. Because asking someone this question implies that the one who asks considers the other one to be a successful person. And by this point many answers have been given to this question.
In Western societies we usually have a pretty comprehensive picture about what it means to be successful. We are aware of the fact that success is far more than just numbers, profit, fame, and achieved goals. It is widely accepted that helping others, giving for the community, and generally acting in the favor of the greater good are the most important factors of success. The psychology of success is however always an interesting and complex field of research, and yet another area of psychological studies that are affected by cross-cultural differences. Most people regarded as successful talk about the importance of having a purpose in life, basically the core reason why you get out of bed every morning. Living a life with meaning and purpose, not just going through your days on autopilot, and always being aware of and knowing your WHY. This is the aspect of success, that is intrinsically yours, and it seriously shapes your identity and sense of self. But in addition to this, we all have a culturally inherited idea of what it means to be successful, and these two aspects are strongly connected.
Ignoring cultural aspects of success is not only likely to result in failure when it comes to intercultural work- or business situations, but it is simply becoming more and more impossible in today’s globalized world. We are getting in touch with people from all around the world both in our work- and personal life, and we are constantly reminded that different cultures have entirely different values and resources as well. It’s enough to think about the differences in how people from various cultures view themselves in relation to others: in many parts of the world people see themselves through the prism of their relationships and network. In many Eastern cultures people first of all tend to see themselves as a parent/spouse/child, their relations being the core of their identity. In most Western cultures however, people rather see themselves as autonomous individuals, and often create their sense of identity based on their accomplishments. This is just one of the many cultural differences that shape the definition of success around the world. Naturally in a family- and relationship-oriented culture success will be closely tied to family values, and people in these countries will most likely define success in the context of raising children, having close and meaningful relationships, and helping each other. Doing business in these countries often goes hand in hand with building and maintaining personal relationships as well, and people who are considered highly successful may be very different compared to the ones considered successful in Western countries.
It is also a question of what the core values of a society are: do they rather value the journey or the destination? What are their thoughts on time? Do they think about the present, and short-term gratification, while tending to look towards the past, or rather have the future in mind while working, thinking of „the bigger picture”? Another cultural aspect that can shape the meaning of success is what a culture values more: standing out from the crowd, or rather fitting in? And whether degrees, jobs, career progress play a crucial part in success, which also depends on the resources and opportunities available in a country. What it means to fulfill one’s potential is always culturally bound, even if it doesn’t show at first sight.
I think we can point to one aspect of success which can be applied globally: the WHY that constitutes the drive, the one mentioned at the beginning of the article. And this drive, this purpose is something that varies around the world and can be broken down to many other aspects and components which are strongly influenced by the culture one lives in. And understanding these culturally defined aspects of success can be of great help both in our work- and personal lives, as getting to know different meanings and premises of success certainly broadens our understanding of it.