Defining Success


On a beautiful Spring day in 2008, 40 or so high school boys ran onto the brand-new field at Nationals’ Park to play a high school baseball game. A parent with connections to the club had gotten the teams access to play their final regular season game on the sparkling Major League field. A lot was at stake that day.  Both teams were fighting for playoff seeding, and the outcome of the game would go a long way toward finalizing that.

I had been the scorekeeper for the Walt Whitman HS team that entire year (my son was on the team), and this day was no different. Throughout the year, Whitman’s coach had consistently played his nine starters and few of the other boys. So, while I kept score, I only rarely had to deal with inserting substitutions into the scorebook.  

At the end of the first inning, Whitman’s coach came out of the dugout and headed towards me.

“I have some substitutions for you, Mr. Fleshner,” he smiled.

“In the top of the second, coach?” I asked.

Coach Cassidy smiled again and gestured toward the majestic scoreboard in center field and the impossibly green outfield grass. “Everyone’s playing in this game, Mr. Fleshner. The final score is the least important consideration today.”

So, 20 or so young boys played for Whitman that sun-drenched afternoon, on the magnificent Nationals’ Park field. I can still see the smile on my son’s face as he stood on first base after lacing an opposite field single. He and his teammates all remember that day like it was yesterday, I guarantee it.

Coach Cassidy had a firm idea of what success should look like that day. For him, it was about allowing 20 boys to play out their childhood fantasies of being Major League baseball players.  The final score was irrelevant, as was its impact on playoff positioning.

In the intervening years, I’ve often thought about the way Coach Cassidy handled that situation. But, it took me a long time to put it in a business context, in terms of understanding how to determine what’s important and to subsequently measure success.  So often we fail in our endeavors because we don’t have a clear idea of what success looks like in a particular situation.

Let’s talk about this in terms of the job-search process.  This process is often fraught with stress and dissatisfaction. How could altering your ideas about what success looks like change the overall tone of this process? Suppose you have a meeting with a contact to try to further your job search.  If your measure of success is walking away from that meeting with a job, then the likelihood of feeling successful is pretty small. But, if your measure of success is getting two more contacts to send your resume to, or getting a valuable piece of information about a particular field, then the chances of feeling successful at the end of the meeting increase exponentially. Feeling successful and generally optimistic about the job-search process will in turn lead to more positive steps going forward, helping you keep your momentum.

So, consider a situation specific to your own career, in which you haven’t experienced as much success as you would like.  What has been your definition of success in that situation?  Could that definition be modified so that you experience a greater degree of success?  As you think about how to measure success, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Think in terms of steps along the road to success. The ultimate goal of a sports coach may be winning the championship, but it may take three or four years to get there.  Interim successes can keep you focused and positive.  That’s not to say you should set the measure of success so low that it’s a virtual guarantee, but don’t go to the other extreme either.   
  • Think about setting two measures of success. One can be a measure of “moderate” success and the other can be a measure of “extraordinary” success.  For example, coming out of an interview with a second interview could be “moderate” success, while coming out of an interview with a job offer could be “extraordinary” success.
  • If you fail to achieve a hoped-for success, use it to your advantage. Adjust course accordingly to enhance future chances of success. Assess whether you failed because the measure of success was too much of a stretch, or for some other reason. Suppose you are being reviewed and you’ve set the measure of success as receiving a bonus and a promotion. You get the bonus, but not the promotion. Ask your boss to provide concrete examples of what would be needed to get that promotion. This information will enable you to better understand whether you can make the necessary improvements, or whether your measure of success was simply unrealistic, given the situation. 

Wondering how the game turned out? Well, the other team’s coach had a different measure of success than Whitman’s coach. He kept his starters in the whole game, since his idea of success was a better playoff seeding. He failed. Whitman prevailed 5-1. Karma? Perhaps, but either way, one coach succeeded and the other failed. With a different measure of success, the other coach could have succeeded as well.

We have a lot of experience with goal setting and measuring success. Let us know if you’d like some perspective. Give us a call at 301-520-9511 or email