Does Society Use the Wrong Metrics to Judge Success?

Over the last year or so, I've found myself becoming increasingly interested in understanding what drives people to do the things that they do. From my friends, to my colleagues, to leaders in business, and professional athletes. I find myself fascinated by people's motivations.

And if you understand what motivates people, you ought to have a reasonable understanding of how they define success. In gaining an understanding of the different ways people define success, I've drawn two major conclusions:

  1. Society at large pushes an image of success that is destructive in nature
  2. The post-financial crisis generation has a much different idea of success than the generations before it

Here's what led me to believe this...

I think we can all agree that money plays a role in success, especially here on WSO. Let's face it, you don't pursue a career in finance if money doesn't matter to you. And money absolutely should factor into any equation used to define success. What disturbs me is that society at large pushes far too simple of an equation: Money = Success

Now, this may not be groundbreaking stuff. We're all well aware of how materialistic modern America is. We know just as Tyler Durden did, that advertisers "push cars and clothes" and "have us working jobs we hate, to buy shit we don't need."

But, I think the problem is deeper. I think that society at large has grown to worship wealth.

I find, too often, that people will vast amounts of wealth are assumed to be more successful than anyone else. That those who accumulate vast amounts of wealth are most qualified to be in leadership positions simply because they are highly skilled at making money, regardless of how they did it.

Listen to the rhetoric used by talking heads on TV and the radio - the fabled "Job Creator" is held above all others as a great beacon of hope for society. Mitt Romney is on record stating that he'd fill his White House cabinet with "more successful CEO types" if elected.

Now, to be clear, I don't begrudge anyone their wealth. Assuming they didn't do anything illegal or seriously unethical to get it, I celebrate those who are monetarily successful. What I take issue with is how quick people seem to make the leap that someone who makes a lot of money must be more qualified to lead or innately smarter than everyone else. Counter-intuitively, this attitude seems to have ratcheted up big time since the crisis hit.

In my view, this mindset cheapens the achievements of countless other people. I can guarantee that the scientists at CERN who found the Higgs Boson are not wealthy people. Yet, their discovery may play out as one of the biggest in the history of physics. On a smaller scale, there are scientists and engineers and teachers and a whole assortment of people who work hard and do great things in their chosen field of work.

This brings me to my second point - the post-financial crisis generation judges success far differently than the generations before it.

In speaking with my friends and colleagues, it is clear that they measure success differently. What they value is not the accumulation of wealth alone. What they really value is freedom. This means freedom from debt. It means freedom to pursue opportunities that most interest them as opposed to opportunities that they must pursue out of necessity.

We have seen first-hand how a singular focus on accumulating wealth can lead to disaster. How quickly it can be taken away by things completely out of your control. We've all worked under senior folks who make big money but can never leave their jobs because of their myriad financial obligations. Beach houses, private schools for their kids, their spouse's expensive shopping habit...To again reference one of my favorite movies, the things that they own ended up owning them.

I personally have seen my motivations change in the years since the crisis struck. Would I still like to make a bunch of money? Of course. Is it my sole focus? Absolutely not. If anything, I hope to accumulate wealth as a bi-product of pursuing my interests. To grow my assets, minimize my liabilities, and enjoy the journey.

I'm curious to see how fellow WSOers feel about this topic. Have you also seen your motivations change? Do you think there is a bifurcation between how the post-crisis generation and pre-crisis generations define success?


from my former MD who continues to tell me that banking isn't worth it:

success = health + happiness. Money is a great way to get there, but you should never sacrifice health especially for monetary gain. When you are old and rich, you spend your money so you can live longer.

happiness goes with freedom, also challenge and having a sense of purpose. Again, money is an easy way to represent those.


I am not sure if I see that much evidence that the post-crisis generation are the ones that are defining success differently. I think what you are observing as someone who went through the Wall St. ringer, is a more fined tuned sense of what will make you happy and observing it more in those around you as a result.

I can tell you based on WSO's growth, the lure of Wall St., no matter how daunting and difficult the hours, still holds the potential of great wealth and is pursued aggressively by many undergrads.

I think what is more true is that as you mature, as you get further into your career you are less willing to sacrifice years of your life to accumulte wealth / "success"....and as such, in order to prevent any cognitive dissonance, if you did highly value wealth before, you start defining free time and daily motivation as "success" (which in my opinion is better in the long run).


Society doesnt judge people. People judge people. And far too many people out there do not judge success or make goals based off of making money. A lot of people dont make goals that are anything but short sighted, as has been the case for all of human history. A lot of people in finance also do it not for the money but for the nature of the industry.

“...all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” - Schopenhauer

My motivations have not been affected because they were never so venal as to be guided by pecuniary gain alone. What you are describing is a known phenomenon. We've seen the result of generations being scarred by traumatic events several times in the 20th century. And conversely, when times are flush (i.e.1980-2008), people admire lives of materialism and conspicuous consumption is worshiped- it's the ebb and flow of history in the waters of human psychology. The most applicable analogy is the generation of Americans that were born and lived during the Great Depression. Their views, their investment philosophy, and their world outlook defined and shaped by their experiences. This is to be expected. However, I would posit that the "pre-crisis" and "post-crisis" generations (a.k.a., the Baby Boomer and the Millennials) have not yet fully appreciated the gravity of what I expect will hit us in the near future. No amount of wishful thinking and hope will mitigate the reality of a near-complete (or complete) disaster.

So, yes, society uses the wrong metric for measuring success, because it always has and always will. Society is a capricious amalgam of short-sighted and flawed individuals that hold a commanding majority- of course its' prescriptions of a "life well-lived" will be wrong.

Bene qui latuit, bene vixit- Ovid

Wait when did we stop using skin color and bloodline?

But seriously, I don't think everyone sees money as success. The campaign against "Money = Success" has been like the one against cigarettes. You still want one but everyone kinda acts like they're totally against it. I think the big factors now are things that are offshoots of happiness, like finding the perfect partner or being "satisfied" with your job, both of which I find hysterically impossible.

Bottom line is that this idea of "universally understood happinesses" have always been the measuring stick for success. Unfortunately the only one most people end up agreeing on is that having more money isn't a bad thing, so we use that as the only universal metric. Truth is, happiness is the most subjective thing there is, it can't be measured, and it's completely different for everyone. Most people don't even know what makes them happy and have a TV ad decide for them. If everyone can agree on one thing that makes them happy or successful, then it's definitely a lie, so don't listen to anyone else tell you what you have to do to be successful in life. They're usually only telling you as a way of telling themselves anyways.

Drugs, music, and a woman to enjoy both with are what get me where I wanna go. The rest is just bullshit and it'll fuck you up. Of course getting all three of those things required a little money...

I hate victims who respect their executioners

Some thoughtful comments. Agree with much of the sentiment in the replies. Perhaps I'm projecting my own ability to be introspective, and that of my friends and colleagues, onto too large a group of people. When, let's be real here, most people aren't too bright and live incredibly short-sighted lives.


Everyone always says money doens't equal happiness which may be true to an extent. However, money provides access to things that make you happy.

Solely having money isn't enough to be called successful but neither does living a life like a pompous & humble pariah.

Here to learn and hopefully pass on some knowledge as well. SB if I helped.

Self acceptance and the ability to be content really drive happiness. Without these things you are always looking for others to provide reassurance and always seeking something new, something different. The problem is that these things are not easy to achieve, whereas money is 2+2=4.

Isn't this the reoccurring theme on this site? People looking at banking as the simple way to riches instead of going the unknown and risky path of happiness or what you really want to do?


Happiness = Success for me. Like stated above, everyone's measurement is going to differ, but I think most would agree on this.

So then, worrying about if other people think you're successful or not probably isn't going to lead to you being happy.

Best Response
... In gaining an understanding of the different ways people define success, I've drawn two major conclusions:
  1. Society at large pushes an image of success that is destructive in nature
  2. The post-financial crisis generation has a much different idea of success than the generations before it


I agree with the former (more or less), but not the latter. The post-financial crisis generation, define success in the same way that those who came before them. The difference is that they probably want to be green tech entrepreneurs, or some other nonsense rather than Hedge Fund analysts or CEOs.

I think you're going through an enlightenment that comes from having experienced the crisis and having lived a little more than your average finance guy / are getting older.

My Motivation I remember a year or two ago sitting in a meeting with some bankers and corporate types thinking to myself... "do I want to be like the guy across the table from me when I'm in my 40s? a rich loser?" ... It sent a chill down my spine, it's a thought that stayed with me for a while.

Early in my career, I was motivated by a good and increasing income (i.e. more than my peers), some social status and a bit of free time for leisure (buying "stuff" wasn't a big concern, rather buying "fun / experiences"). Now, I'm more concerned with being independent (especially from corporate control), having my work life serve my social / personal life (not the other way around) and maintaining the personal relationships that are important to me (family, friendships & other).

I think I measure success much more subjectively now, rather than measuring it in career milestones, indicators or social status or possessions. Basically I define success as being more of a human being, being truer to myself and relating to others in a more genuine manner. I don't want a standardised human experience designed by committee. I want my own life.

The system is rigged against us! The way our societies are set up means that we can't take breaks from the corporate rat race, or to experiment with alternatively "tracks". If you take 6 months off to travel in your early 30s people think you're having a mid life crisis and employers would be sceptical of your work ethic regardless of what you've achieved in the past. If you step out of line a little bit it hurts your B-School chances, or takes you off the partner track, etc... It's not just the corporate world. Our governments measure their success by growth in GDP, "competitiveness" and other metrics that relate poorly to what we value as human beings and as communities.

I look back on my career so far and I don't regret a single business meeting that I missed because I was away with friends or a girlfriend. I do regret most of the trips that I skipped because I wanted to work on some deal, or my MD needed "bandwidth"...

I think this is starting to extend to my ideas as well. I rarely read business type books anymore or watch the news or political shows. I'm reading a lot more fiction & other literature, some from this century, some from previous ones. It's amazing how much of what we "know" is just corporate dogma to get you to buy stuff or be a more obedient slave for your corporate master.

Personal relationships This is an interesting area. Money is a big factor, but it isn't as clear at first. Class, social status, being attractive, having dependants and such are all affected by your income / wealth, but how much of it is "real" and how much of it is because we allow it to be so (on an individual basis or as a community)?

I find that people who like me or have had shared positive experiences with me always overestimate how much I make and assume a lot more "prestige" in my social background (schools attended, family, other affiliations, etc...)... These things matter in a social context when people have superficial contact / relationships (makes sense for them to), but I wonder how deep it goes when it comes to more meaningful relationships.

I was at a dinner recently and a girl brought up the idea that people who are doing well financially cannot fall in love the way the majority of people can because they have too much to lose. It led to pretty heated debate among some of the couples!

To be honest the thing that annoys me the most on a personal level is the lack of sense of community outside of political and professional organisations. Maybe playing sports or charity is the only real outlet. The arts might be another, but so much of it that I'm exposed to is "corporate" and doesn't have a grass roots feel to it.

tl;dr We are all born into the Matrix... most of us don't even know it exists... looks like you're starting to break out of it!


I am a sophomore in college still trying to find direction in life but here is how I measure success. I want to make money, sure, so does everyone else. Maybe I want it more than most, that's why I want to do finance. But that is merely a means to an end. I thought long and hard about it and I realized something. I would be the happiest man alive and in my view the most successful if I can do what I want, when I want to, going where I want, and just doing what I love. Personally, that means that I I would like to move to Vegas and play poker for a living. I don't care if I only make enough to make ends meet, I don't want to have millions that I can't spend. I want to travel and see the world. In an ideal world, that would be by traveling to poker tournaments which I can then win enough money to pay for the trip.

I discussed this idea with my roommate one night and he helped to to realize that there is a social stigma against this kind of life. For reasonably smart people like ourselves, everyone expects us to go to college, get a good degree (currently in an engineering program), then go get a good job working 40+ hours a week .... blah blah blah, the usual life. But does anyone really want that? I would wage not. I certainly don't but that is the world I was born into. I want to break out of it and live a life that I love, not the life that society tells me I should love.

I want excitement, I want to see the world, I want change!

I guess I am looking at finance jobs to earn some really good pay for a few years, then use that money that I can save up to help finance this lifestyle. No clue if it is even possible to live how I want to, but if I can accomplish it, that would be success to me.


Success is just some good loving and some good lingerie with your woman.

Baby you're the perfect shape, baby you're the perfect weight. Treat me like my birthday, I want it this way and I want it that way. It makes a man feel good baby.

I agree with both 1 and 2, but would offer the following clarifications:

(1) I'd generalize a bit further here and say that our society equates successful outcomes with success. In other words, we tend to focus on the end result (lots of money), rather than the process that produced result (legitimate skill or knowledge). Not only does this create the possibility that some undeserving people end up becoming models of success (people without real skills who relied on others, people who got lucky, people who were "hooked-up"), it sets us all up for unhappiness. Outcomes can be fickle, and if your happiness is tied to them, then your happiness is fickle too.

(2) It may not be universal, but I think there are quite a few people in our generation that are changing their conception of "success," and it's along the lines of the above. I've been talking to a lot of guys that are finding out true satisfaction comes from mastering something important to you, staying focused on the process, and trying as best you can to detach from outcomes. Climbing the senior ranks in finance generally requires the antithesis of this mindset - it's all about "seeming" instead of doing and being - hence the decision by a lot of those in our generation to re-evaluate what has traditionally been characterized as "success."


Nobody in their right mind has ever said "I'd rather be rich than happy." However not everyone has discovered what their key to happiness is, especially at the age of 22. Money is flexibility later in life, which is why it is so important to fresh college grads. Aside from the sociopaths who really do derive happiness from doing "better" than others, of course.


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