What is success?
To laugh
often and much,
to win respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a
redeemed social condition;
to know even one life
has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Strayer University recently conducted a study on the subject of success in America. Among the findings:

  • 90% of Americans believe that success is defined by happiness more so than money, power, or fame.
  • Only 1 in 5 Americans surveyed feel that monetary wealth is what defines success.
  • 67% define success as attaining personal goals.
  • 60% define success as loving what you do for a living.
  • 66% define success as having good relationships.
  • Of those who consider themselves to be successful, 54% say they have a strong and supportive family network.
  • Of those who consider themselves to be successful, 31% describe themselves as being ambitious.
  • 62% of those who consider themselves successful report accomplishing most of their life’s goals.

What do all of those ideas on success have in common? They don’t involve spending money.

They don’t involve having a nice car. They don’t involve having fancy clothes. They don’t involve having a big house. They don’t involve having lots of electronic gadgets and toys.

Instead, they involve things like having and attaining personal goals, having a strong and supportive personal network, having good relationships with people, and spending your time doing things that you love.

This survey brought a lot of questions to the forefront of my mind, so let’s walk through them together.

The Conundrum of Impressing Others

If people honestly view success as being things like achieving personal goals, having a strong personal network, having lots of good relationships, and doing work that they love, why do people persist in the desire to spend money on things to impress others?

One big reason is a pretty straightforward one: It’s really hard to show off the other kinds of success, while it’s very easy to show off material trappings of success.

You’re not going to give people a dazzling first impression with your great relationships and personal achievements. They’re not going to be awed initially by your dazzling personal network or your stunning work that you love.

People often use those things as a crutch to build an internal sense of self-confidence, to give them a foot in the door socially that they might not otherwise have.

Over the long run, it’s not those material things that build a strong and lasting relationship, but they often make people feel more prepared to start that process.

Another challenge is the “long-run” factor. It is much quicker to buy some new clothes or a new car to impress others than it is to build a great relationship or a great personal network or to achieve goals in your personal life. It’s not nearly as effective, but it feels like a “quick fix.”

Good First Impressions without Money

So, how do you make a good first impression without the material trappings of “success”? How can you have that sense of confidence without the shiny car or the nice clothes? Here are some strategies I’ve learned over the years.

First, build and maintain a real positive reputation. Treat people well. Don’t talk negatively about others. Help out when you can. Greet people in public. When you give your word to someone in regards to doing something, follow through.

Second, keep yourself clean and well-groomed. This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly something that many people fail at. Even if you don’t notice it in others, people sometimes notice it regarding themselves, whether consciously or not, and it can both directly and indirectly affect your self-confidence in public.

Third, assume (and rightly so) that the other person is more interested in themselves than in you. Often, other people scarcely think about you at all. They’re caught up in the thoughts going on in their head, most of which are focused on themselves. Think about your own thoughts and how the vast majority of them are about you and not about others. Look around the room the next time you’re in a crowded place and reflect on how little you even consider each of those people.

Knowing this simultaneously takes a burden from your shoulders – they’re not really thinking about you too much – and gives you an immediate and convenient way to start a conversation with someone, by asking them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves.

These tactics form the backbone of how I feel confident in public without spending money to create the illusion of success. Most of the time, I’m wearing clothes that I’ve had for many years. I’m usually driving a 13-year-old vehicle that I bought off of Craigslist. Instead, I’m confident because I’m clean, I’ve worked to build a positive reputation, and I don’t worry about whether others are thinking about me and instead encourage people to talk about themselves. It doesn’t take money to do those things.

Material Trappings

Another association that many people make is that success is often represented by simply possessing a lot of stuff – a large home, nice things, and so on. The purpose of having these things isn’t to impress others, but to somehow “enjoy your own life.” The idea is that your own life is somehow made more enjoyable if you have the nice house and nice things.

If anything, I’ve found that the opposite is true. Here are several reasons why.

The upkeep on expensive things is expensive. There are many more things that can go wrong with a $500,000 house compared to a $200,000 house. You’re going to need to do more maintenance to keep it up, which means more hours of your life spent on home maintenance (that might be fine if you enjoy it, but it’s misery if you don’t).

You’re also going to be paying more insurance and higher property taxes on those items, which means a higher continuous expense. You’re also more likely to be in a homeowners association with association fees.

Those ongoing expenses mean that you have to have a higher ongoing income just to match them, which means you’ll likely have a higher stress job due to the higher income requirement you have in your life.

Higher-end things often just duplicate functions that less expensive items have. For example, what exactly can you do with an iPhone 6 that you can’t do with an older Android phone? You can make calls on both. You can send texts on both. You can play Candy Crush on both. The differences in function are minor, but the difference in cost is immense.

There’s nothing wrong with paying more for a better item provided it genuinely provides additional things that add up to a meaningful difference. For almost everything, though, the best option is the top “bang for the buck” purchase which you can find by looking at publications like Consumer Reports. The difference between a 88/100 item and a 91/100 item shouldn’t be a doubling in price – if it is, you’re overpaying for very little.

There are only so many hours in a day. Like many people, I have a lot of different interests. I enjoy reading. I enjoy working with electronics projects, building things out of pieces. I enjoy playing tabletop games (and designing them, too). I enjoy studying and learning about new things. I enjoy exploring trails and woods and parklands.

The thing is, it’s really tempting in terms of money to try to “keep up with” all of those hobbies. It’s tempting to always have the latest book everyone’s talking about on my bedside table. It’s tempting to have tons of little electronic components in my toolkit. It’s tempting to always own the latest board game or gaming book. It’s tempting to always own the best camping or hiking supplies.

When I step back, though, I realize that those purchases don’t add up to any kind of “success.” The real “success” of a hobby comes from doing it, not from having a lot of hobby-related stuff.

In the end, I’ve found one truth stands out above all others.

Success Comes from Investing Time, Not Money

That’s true for almost every measure of success, from personal fitness to relationships, from self-improvement projects to hobbies, from skills to a strong social network and standing.

I’ve been successful in the areas of my life where I’ve devoted a great deal of focused time. I have a handful of very strong relationships that I value. I have a few hobbies that I’m passionate about and have a good network of people who share those interests. I built The Simple Dollar and have many interesting professional opportunities.

Obviously, those successes don’t cover every area of life. There are other areas I wish I had success in, and it’s those areas where the temptation is greatest to try to buy success.

The thing is, “buying” success almost always ends in failure. You either end up losing the desire to be successful in that area or the “false” nature of your purchased success becomes apparent.

Success only really lasts when you put in the time and the energy. Money is truly secondary to all of that.

The Constant Choice

The constant choice we’re all faced with when it comes to success is how to use our time. We have so many options when it comes to every minute of the day. The question is how we choose to use those minutes and that relatively limited amount of personal energy that we have.

I’ve found that a simple flowchart helps me to decide how to fill my time.

First, I ask myself if I’m tired. Are my energy levels low? If so, then I rest, and by resting I don’t mean sitting in front of a television or surfing the web. I mean genuine rest. I lay down and take a nap if at all possible. If that isn’t possible, I choose the most mindless thing on my to-do list and do that.

I find that a lot of people choose to do heavily relaxing things when they’re tired instead of choosing to sleep. They’ll binge-watch a series on Netflix until late in the evening even though they’ve been tired for three hours, then they wake up in the morning and feel dead tired and can’t really achieve as much during the day.

If I’m not tired, I sit down and look at the important things I have to do. “Important” has little to do with “urgent.” For example, for me, an important thing to do is to make a snack for my children after school while talking to them about their day. That’s not an urgent thing at all, but it is important.

Yes, sometimes things have due dates associated with them, but that often has little to do with whether they’re important or not. I view most email as being very urgent, but it’s almost always very low on the importance scale, so I often go for long spells without reading my email at all (sometimes to the chagrin of some of my professional contacts).

To me, it’s the “important” things that make me successful, not the “urgent” ones. The important things revolve around the key relationships in my life. They revolve around living up to my commitments to others. They involve finding and cultivating opportunities to do things professionally that I truly love to do (like writing). They are centered around my handful of personal passions, like lifetime learning.

The Role of Money in Success

So now we come to the $64,000 question: If success and money are actually independent, what role does money actually play when it comes to success?

The role of money in finding personal success comes in several different flavors.

First, money does enable you to take care of the basics of life. It keeps a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly. Without those things, there are many types of success that are hard to find.

The challenge is that we are often tempted to slowly increase the quality of those things as we earn more money. We crave better homes, better clothes, better (and more) food, and so on. The challenge is that those higher quality things cost more money, which means that we have to devote more time and energy to earning money.

Thus, being content and satisfied with lower-end things in many areas of life is often a key to success. A person who achieves great things in one area of life often doesn’t have great things in other areas of life – or doesn’t have the time or energy to enjoy those things.

That’s okay. Center your life around the things that really, truly matter to you and spend less time and money and energy on the other things.

Second, money buys time, but not in the way you think. People often think of money as being a tool to buy a few minutes of time here or a few minutes of time there when they buy convenience items, but those spare minutes don’t build success. Instead, money enables you to make broader life changes that enable success, however you define it, by reducing the personal and time demands of work.

Right now, one of my biggest life goals is financial independence. It is an extremely lofty goal – essentially, it means “retiring” before I reach retirement age. For me, “retiring” merely means that I won’t need to work every day for money, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve achieved anything regarding my other areas of life.

Having that money in the bank won’t mean that I suddenly have more meaningful relationships or that I’ve built a greater understanding of complex ideas or that I’ve written a truly powerful book. All it means is that I now have more time to devote to those areas.

I no longer have to consider whether at least some of the things I spend my time on are earning a financial return for that time invested. Instead, I can think solely about the other kinds of returns that my time and money can earn – strong relationships, personal growth, personal joy, a stronger community, and so on.

Even without pure financial independence, smart use of money can enable you to have a job with lower stress and more flexible hours in exchange for a lower wage. In essence, that was the choice I made when I chose to leave my research job and work on The Simple Dollar full time a few years ago.

When you combine these ideas together, you create a much different picture of the connection between money and success than is often delivered in the media today.

Success and Popular Culture

We live in a sound-bite culture where ideas are delivered to us in short little nuggets of information. Often, when success is discussed in any way, it’s described to us in that kind of shorthand. We’re given the briefest of definitions of success that’s explained in the easiest way possible, and that definition of success is usually wealth that’s displayed in an obvious fashion.

If someone spends millions on their own private jet, they must be successful! If you translate that into your own neighborhood, the person who spends tens of thousands of dollars on a shiny new car must be successful!

The thing is, when you accept that kind of ‘sound bite’ summary of success, you leave out the definition of what success actually is for you.

Does the person with the personal jet have a great relationship with his or her wife and children? Do they have close friends that they can always trust and rely on?

Does the person with the shiny new car have time to devote to hobbies and interests that bring them personal fulfillment?

Does the person who lives in the beautiful mega-house have a large social network of people who truly care about them?

Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t see those things that add up to true success because they can’t be compressed into that easy sound bite. We just see the easy part that’s presented to us – the private jet or the shiny car or the huge house. We don’t see what goes on when the doors close and the cameras roll away.

A Better Plan

If you want to be successful, here’s a much better plan.

First, figure out what you actually want out of your life – and keep that list small. Do you want strong relationships? Do you want a job that you truly enjoy? Do you want an expensive car? Do you want time to explore personal interests?

Those things all probably sound good to you, but the reality is that you can’t have success with all of those things. It just doesn’t work. Instead, choose one or maybe two of them and abandon the others. Let them become very minor parts in your life if they’re even present at all.

Second, look seriously at how you spend your time and money and ask yourself whether those things line up with the success that you want.

Be honest with yourself about it, too. Does the success that you want involve watching television or surfing the web for three or four hours a day while spending $100 or more per month on an Internet and/or cable bill? Does the success that you want involve missing your child’s recital because of a client that can’t wait?

If the answer to those questions is “no,” then stop wasting your time, money, and energy on those other things. Downshift your career if you want a strong relationship with your child. Get rid of your cable connection and your television if you want more free time to do those things. Back away from obligations that you don’t truly value.

Finally, don’t be afraid to downgrade some things to upgrade other things. If you downshift your career so that you have more time and energy for other things, don’t be afraid to downgrade your home to one that allows you to focus on those other things.

In the end, choose to be successful in just an area or two that you really care about and don’t worry about the rest. Don’t even try to “pretend” to be successful in those areas. Focus on what matters to you, not what other people might care about or what “successful people” are supposed to “care” about.

Good luck in mapping your own route to success, particularly when you realize that it doesn’t have to involve a jet or a Rolls Royce or a gold-plated GPS navigation unit.