This Is Why Your Definition of Success Might Be Keeping You Stuck (And Here's a Better Definition)

One morning, I won a bunch of gold medals on my first try.

When I ride my bike, I use a social app, which tracks your route, distance, speed, and other metrics. Usually, other riders have created “segments” along your route—specific stretches of road or path in which your time is recorded and then ranked against your past rides.

On the day of the gold medals, I was bored with my typical routes, so I chose a new route with new segments, and I began. My legs felt heavier than usual, and the humid late-summer air was thick in my lungs. It was clear from the outset that this morning would be a long, slow, slog of a ride. So, when I finished the route and looked at my results I was, at first, incredulous.

Four segments. Four gold medals.

Then, as the dawn turned into day, it slowly dawned on me: it had been my first time riding this route, my first time completing these segments. So, no matter how badly I performed, it was my best performance of all time. At first, this was exceptionally unsatisfying. But then I realized why it was so unsatisfying:

My definition of success is all messed up.

My definition of success has to do with being the best, rather than being determined. My definition of success emphasizes conquests instead of courage. My definition of success focuses on the completion of projects, and it neglects the bravery required to begin them.

What if the first time we do something is always our best performance, regardless of how we perform, because getting started always requires the best kind of courage?

For instance, in the last seven years, my writing has improved dramatically. Along the way, I’ve written blog posts that have been shared millions of times. Readers write me every week saying things like, “I love all your blog posts, but this is your best one yet.” Yet, as I stared at my four gold medals for my first attempt, I realized my best blog post—my gold medal blog post—is the one that was shared exactly four times. That was my first blog post. It wasn’t my best according to my typical definition of success. But it was my best according to my better definition of success. It was my first, so it required an exceptional amount of courage.

A mediocre blog post, but gold medal guts.

My wife gave birth three times, and during the delivery of our second child, things went fast. She almost gave birth in the car, and by the time we got to the hospital our son’s vitals were dropping because the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and the doctor desperately wielded forceps and the whole thing was chaos and confusion, yet I was relatively calm and encouraging. In contrast, during the delivery of our oldest son, my wife pushed for three hours and somewhere in the middle of it I abandoned her to go be nauseous with anxiety in the bathroom. Nevertheless, I think that was my gold medal performance. It was our first. I was standing on the doorstep of parenthood and all the firsts that fatherhood would bring, and I wanted nothing more than for it to begin, despite my terror.

Nauseous in the bathroom, but gold medal guts.

Just last week, that same oldest son texted my wife and I, a week into high school, and told us he was reconsidering trying out for the madrigals choir because he felt “out of his depth.” I know the feeling. Every time I do something new I feel out of my depth. So, I told him, the only way to learn how to swim is to move a little bit out of your depth so your toes can’t touch. If you are growing and challenging yourself and going after what you want in life, the I’m-not-sure-I’ve-got-what-it-takes voice always goes with you. It never goes away. So, we just have to get used to going along with it. I told him it’s a pretty annoying companion. He tried out for madrigals, and we still don’t know if he made it. But it was his best performance yet.

Out of his depth, but gold medal guts.

In the pool of life, where are your toes still touching, and into what depths do you wish to wade for the first time? Are you afraid of getting cut from the choir if you do? Afraid of ending up in the hospital bathroom, pale and puking? Afraid of toiling over a piece of mediocre writing for weeks? Afraid you do not have what it takes to take a chance at the things you want to do? If so, I have good news:

Success isn’t getting to the top; success is simply getting started.




out of your depth,

but gold medal guts.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.