What’s the definition of success?

Just because two people hear the same word or phrase, doesn't mean that they are conceptualizing the same thing. For example, I live in the desert, so when I say that it's “cold,” it's a pretty safe bet that I'm talking about something different than the person who lives in Vermont. Similarly, if I say it's “humid,” I am probably not thinking about the same thing as the person who lives in Florida.

It comes down to the difference between denotation and connotation. “Denotation” refers to something's definition or literal meaning. “Connotation,” on the other hand, refers to what we associate with the use of a particular term. Connotations can be cultural in nature, though they may be based on personal experience. They can also evoke strong emotions (positive or negative), in both the speaker and the listener.

I have noticed this tendency come into play right here in the comments of GRS. “Get Rich Slowly” is the name of the site, but what do those words mean? What, exactly, is “rich”? What do I think “slowly” means? Is that the same time frame you have in mind? Why does it matter, anyway?

What it Means to “Get Rich”

Does “rich” mean a million bucks? Does it mean homeownership? Does it mean financial independence? Is being rich even something that can be restricted to money? “Financial independence” seems to be rising to prominence as the preferred term in personal finance circles these days (as opposed to a term like “retirement”). I think that is in part because it assumes a more encompassing understanding of the term “rich” than simply money. For example, “financial independence” assumes something about how you spend your time.

For one thing, “financial independence” assumes that you may still be interested to work. However, when you no longer have to spend nine hours a day earning the money you need to survive, then you are free to spend that time on other things whether it's part-time work, a change in fields, volunteering your time to a cause that's near and dear to you, or spending time with friends and family.

“Rich” implies something else completely, at least to me. When I think of “rich,” I always think of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold coins. In other words, to me the term “rich” has a tinge of selfishness. It calls to mind someone who has more than enough money to do anything they want, but who doesn't give — of time or money. Given the connotation I apply to the terms “rich” and “financially independent,” I know which I'd rather be.

What it Means to Get Rich “Slowly”

At what pace do you have to be moving to be slow? If you're still in the debt-payoff phase, should you allocate all your discretionary spending possible toward that goal in order to get out of debt as quickly as possible? Do you have to be gazelle-intense, or is it okay to pay off your debt at a slower pace so that you can allocate some funds toward wants?

And if you're in the asset-accumulation phase, is it okay to act like a corporation, obligated to make every decision with an eye toward shareholder profit? Do we have a duty to live up to our potential? Or is it okay to take a lower-paying job that you enjoy in order to create the life you want? What if it means that you are still dependent on a paycheck and may have to work until you reach retirement age, or even later?

It's like the saying goes, anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. As long as you are moving at a pace that works for you, why does it matter to you what other people think of your progress? Why would you care about the pace of other people's progress? Does it make a difference if they're your friend or family as opposed to a stranger? Does it matter if they have dependents, or if they're dependent on others? Is there morality in personal finance?

Why You Should Do What Works For You

Do what works for you is one of the fourteen core tenets of Get Rich Slowly. At the end of that article, J.D. Roth says:

“Don't listen to anyone who tells you there's just one right way to do something. Each person is different. What works for one person may not work for another. Be willing to experiment until you find methods that are suited to your life.

“Make informed choices, understand the consequences, and focus on your goals.”

This doesn't mean that you don't have things to learn from other people. I think it's always important to consider how other people's methods and circumstances can inform your own. Sometimes, you'll find the best tips and tricks come from those you have a lot in common with. Other times, you'll find that stories from someone in completely different circumstances and with radically different values can change your perspective for the better.

Doing what works for you means letting go of your fears about what other people might think about your decisions. However, it means letting go of your fears because you have carefully considered all the options and are making the best decision for you and your circumstances. It means that your spending matches your values. Being certain that you are doing what works for you doesn't mean that you become certain about what other people should do. It doesn't mean your way is the only way.

Final Thoughts

In a way, the key to success is selfishness. Don't be influenced by the connotation “selfishness” has for being a bad thing. It can be good! “Selfishness” means that you shouldn't be afraid to take tips or learn from anyone who might help you reach your goals. You also shouldn't let your goals be dictated to you by friends, family, or society at large. However, if being selfish means being primarily concerned with your own welfare, then it also means not judging other people for having different priorities than you (assuming their priorities don't harm others).

What does “success” mean to you? What does it mean to be rich? Is it okay to get rich slowly? How slowly? What if you never want to be rich, or you want to get rich as quickly as possible?

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Janette
Janette
6 years ago

Rich means to be able to do what I wish when I do, while still being frugal. It is about choices along the way. When you can say, “I love my life” you are rich.
Slowly means that it is a deliberate act. I did not give up certain things that could slow down my gathering of money: marriage for life, children, education, intellectual discussions, lower paying jobs, higher paying jobs, travel, living in the city or on a hobby farm.

Marty
Marty
5 years ago
Reply to  Janette

Being rich means —- FREEDOM!

Do not owe anyone anything.

Brian @DebtDiscipline
Brian @DebtDiscipline
6 years ago

For me success and rich would be similar to the financial independent line of thinking. Having my finances in a place that I could spend time and effort on work that is meaningful. I would like to be able to get there as fast as possible, but with a family I don’t want to sacrifice time with them, so it may take me longer to achieve this goal and I’m okay with that.

Michelle at Making Sense of Cents
Michelle at Making Sense of Cents
6 years ago

My definitely of success would be being financially independent and being able to do exactly what I want. I would also be living where I want to (we are wanting to move to Colorado in a few years) and bringing in some passive income.

Jerome
Jerome
6 years ago

Our definition of the threshold of being rich: generating enough passive income to be able to pay for all the “needs” and at least some “wants”.

Based on our own experience, even if you are rich you still have financial worries, mostly the fear of losing it all. And, at least for us, it has nothing to do with happiness. Being happy or unhappy is a decision, not a financial state.

Mysticaltyger
Mysticaltyger
6 years ago
Reply to  Jerome

That last comment is a little too binary for me. If you’re working your butt off for very low wages, and have to live in a crappy or unsafe area to survive, then that’s not very conducive to happiness for anyone. A certain minimum income is required for happiness, IMO. It varies by region & circumstance, and it’s lower than what most Americans think it is, but there is an income floor required for happiness nonetheless.

Andrew
Andrew
6 years ago

“Success” is living the life you want in an honorable and compassionate way. Money — in any amount, is just a means to an end.

A Frugal Family's Journey
A Frugal Family's Journey
6 years ago

Success to me is Financial Independence, not being rich. I can say this because our family’s net worth reach $1 million just a month ago. But living where we do, I am still not Financially Independent. I still have to get up and go to work.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

Success in the most basic way is to get what you want, yes? The thing is, different people want different things. So, while there are societal definitions of “success” (political power, big paychecks, etc.), one size does not fit all. For me, a breakfast of uncured bacon and pastured eggs tastes like sweet success. Maximizing freedom the rest of the day is also a huge success. From what I’ve tasted of business and politics (first-hand, no theory), having to deal with greedy and ambitious people all day in order to acquire hierarchical “success” is a very unpleasant chore that destroys… Read more »

Alea
Alea
6 years ago

Although not Catholic, I have to say that one day I would like to see myself as a success when I am as happy as the Pope with everthing he owns in the one bedroom he currently resides in. In my current living situation, I live with two horders, aka mom and dad, who refuse to get rid of anything, and I mean empty boxes included, that I throw away when they are not looking. I tell them I am slowly suffocating in our “fortune” of stuff and one day I dream of chucking it all away and living as… Read more »

kathyglo
kathyglo
6 years ago
Reply to  Alea

So sorry, it must be so hard to have to live with a huge amount of clutter. Hopefully you have your own small space that you can keep organized. Best wishes for a successful future.

No Nonsense Landlord
No Nonsense Landlord
6 years ago

Having enough disposable income to be able to live life without going to a 9-5 job.

But success is more than money. Respect and admiration from others that you earned through your own actions and accomplishments is another definition of success.

Femme Frugality
Femme Frugality
6 years ago

Such great analogies and quotes in here! For me, rich means being able to provide for my family with a home, vacations, and sports activities. I’m not reaching crazy high I don’t think. But from our starting line it’s been quite the journey. I also think there are other aspects of or life that make us rich where money cannot: friends, family, inner peace.

As for speed, I’m all about slow and steady, but sometimes I wish I could get this car to shift up just one gear. 🙂

Daisy
Daisy
6 years ago

I would say that my definition of financial success is simply to be able to make choices for yourself without having to worry too much about money. If you want to go in to the office every day for a 9-5, then so be it; but it should be a decision and not a must-do.

freebird
freebird
6 years ago

My vision of success in life is of freedom we purchase over time doing things that we’d rather not, much like the time honored tradition of wage slaves buying their emancipation. To me being rich means not a specific level of wealth or income, but rather having control over all of my time for the rest of my life. The metric would be net savings divided by future expense rates, as in how many years can I go without selling my time? The difference in my definition is that it’s not the size of the pile, living expense rates matter… Read more »

J
J
6 years ago

Not what sure what the appropriate channel is on this site, but there is/was a “bug” with the FaceBook share button above. The first time I clicked it, an error message was displayed in the pop-up window stating that the article was not found.

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

My definition is boring. Success is achieving a goal. Therefore I do not like when “successful” is used as an adjective. Simply saying “he/she is successful” tells me nothing. Therefore if I say it, it means nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word unless referring to an accomplished feat.

FindX
FindX
6 years ago

I guess definitions are very personal. I consider myself rich and financially independent. Am I rolling in $$$, no. Let me explain why I feel like I’m rich when I’m still not quite in the third stage. I grew up poor in a ghetto of a US city. Drive by shootings were the norm. Drugs sold on the same street I lived on. I know what hunger feels like. After hard work and heavy student loans (for me) I was able to get out. I guess it “helped” that I married a military man. Anyway, we built a life together… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago

For me success is synonymous with being rich… to choose happiness and to choose to love always… no matter what life throws at you. Life’s a journey and there will always be challenges whether it’s financially, physically, emotionally, etc. It is our ability to look past our problems that make us a success and help us live a rich life. Yes, money’s a big part of it but it is only a “part of it”. Figure out what makes you happy and live it honestly, with passion and lots of love.

getagrip
getagrip
6 years ago

I prefer financial independence as the finanical goal for most people both for the reason in the article and for the reason that it generally implies you are content with your lifestyle and can sustain it whether that’s living in a trailer park or a mansion. In otherwords it’s generally a networth independent way of someone having reached a financially comfortable point in their lives. While understanding what is meant by the article’s definition of rich I will take a minor exception to “rich” equating to greedy and not giving back. Many well off folks do give back, they support… Read more »

Sahil Sharma
Sahil Sharma
6 years ago

My success story is like that,
I have sold my old and used furniture and get a lot of money by that. I think is the best method to get rich.

Edward
Edward
6 years ago

Many of the above comments are very wise and insightful. Here is another perspective in addition: A lot of people on Wall Street, where you’d think many are rich, are not. They are just getting by, given the pressures, expectations and costs of living in Manhattan. Very few are actually financially independent– I know I worked there 14 years and finally “got out.” But what people on Wall Street would define as financially independent is enough money to tell your boss to “go to hell” and walk out the door when they try to screw around with your earned bonus.… Read more »

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