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Are You Significant or Merely Successful?

Fast Company's co-founder explains why the difference really matters

By Alan Webber

I was listening to yet another talk at yet another gathering for “executive development.” But this was different.

The gathering wasn’t in an anonymous hotel ballroom. It was at a self-contained ecological farm in England. The executives there were a mix of young aspiring business people from leading British companies and idealistic social entrepreneurs from startups looking to bring change to people’s lives.

The speaker wasn’t just another motivational author flogging his newest book; he was an eye surgeon from the world’s highest quality, lowest cost eye care facility. And the message of his talk and of the whole event was the power of purpose in the work we choose to do in our lives and in the way we express that purpose.

Dr. Aravind Srinivasan was the speaker and his story and his family’s story embody the message he was delivering.

His uncle, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, an Indian opthalmogist, started the Aravind Eye Hospitals in 1976 when he was facing retirement — and the loss of his sense of purpose. His purpose was to eliminate needless blindness in developing countries around the world. Today, the eye hospitals he started have given eye care and eye sight to more than 44 million patients: It is the work of providing vision for millions that comes from the vision of one man.

Success vs. Significance

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

It wasn’t only what he said. It was the way he said it, the quiet authority with which he spoke, wisdom born of personal experience.

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Why Success Isn't the Only Option

That’s the default setting — but it’s not the only option.


As an alternative, there is a growing sensibility, a way of thinking and acting that was the theme of that event outside London. Rather than focusing on success, it emphasizes purpose; instead of money, it looks toward meaning.

It hands over much less authority to things outside the individual (rewards, external motivation, job title, promotions) and assigns much more responsibility for the self to each individual (personal growth, continuous learning, self-discovery, sustained self-renewal).

One of the distinctive characteristics of this alternative mindset is that it cuts across generations. It can’t be dismissed as something that only applies to young people who are idealistic; nor can it be written off as something that only comes to older people after they’ve burned off the dross of ambition.

According to the most recent statistics, by 2020, 70 percent of the American workforce will be Millennials. A 2015 survey by the Global Tolerance consulting firm found that 62 percent of these younger people want purpose and meaning in their work. For them, work isn’t only about making a living. It’s about making a difference and having a life.

At the other end of the age spectrum, as Life Reimagined and AARP have demonstrated, boomers are experiencing a new phase of life.

As people live longer, live healthier and live more actively, boomers are reimagining what they want in this new phase. The old notion of a passive retirement is giving way to a renewed sense of purpose. Instead of settling for golf and lunch as their portion in life, boomers are starting businesses, volunteering, going back to school and exploring a wide variety of possibilities to make sure their lives have meaning.

The importance of purpose and meaning isn’t a new idea. What is new is the democratization of purpose and meaning — the strong belief that each of us can find within ourselves an expression of purpose that connects our lives with the lives of others.

Writing in 1963, John W. Gardner said, “Everyone has noted the abundant resources of energy that seem available to those who enjoy what they are doing or find meaning in what they are doing… All of us cannot spend all of our time pursuing our deepest convictions. But all of us, either in our careers or as part-time activities, should be doing something about which we care deeply.”

In other words, to live good lives of purpose and meaning, we need to find significance, not just success.

Alan Webber is a thought leader with Life Reimagined, part of AARP. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and is founder of the non-profit One New Mexico. Read More
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