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What Does Success Mean to You?

What does success mean to you?How do you define success? And do you consider yourself successful? These are just some of the questions I received when I wrote – It takes more than money to retire early. My first reaction was to say yes, I’m successful. My family enjoys a modest lifestyle and we’re happy. We are financially secure and we’re not lacking for anything. I consider that successful. However, the questions stuck with me. Now, I’m not so sure. Am I really successful? We live in a small home, I drive a banged up car, and we rarely go out to spend money. That doesn’t sound like success.

Recently, my son’s friend told me he went to see a Portland Trailblazers game (basketball.) The whole team gave him a high-five. His dad got him lower level seats for a playoff game (apparently $750.) The kid told me, “My dad is rich.” Wow, I’m jealous. Other dads at my son’s soccer game talked about making a million dollar deal in Beijing. Now, I don’t feel too successful. It’s difficult to grade objectively with these acquaintances.

I think we have to look at success in a more granular manner. You can’t just say someone is successful just because their lifestyle looks good from the outside. You don’t see the whole story.

How do you define success?

First, what does success mean to me? I must admit, my definition of success is pretty conventional. It means a beautiful house, a nice car, a loving family, a highly paid job, and other highly visible trappings. Mrs. RB40 used to read Architectural Digest and Travel + Leisure magazines. The lifestyle depicted in those posh magazines looks like success to me. They never seem real, though. Those lives look too perfect.

Now that I thought more about it, I realize that’s not quite true. That level of success isn’t very realistic. Is it truly possible to be successful with everything? Even the richest person in the world failed at marriage. Those high-power dads are working all the time and don’t have much time for their kids. Are they more successful than I am? Maybe professionally, but probably not when it comes to family life.

Anyway, success isn’t just about career and money. There are many facets of life. As a former engineer, I always say – when in doubt make a spreadsheet. Check it out.

Success MatrixHmmm… My overall success score is not great, just 5.93. Let’s go each line item.

Material things – 5

I give us a 5 for material things. We have everything we need, but we live relatively modestly. Our home is small for a family of 3, around 950 square feet. Our car is a modest minivan, a 2010 Mazda 5. It’s even more banged up now that a bicycle crashed into the rear liftgate recently. Our 720p TV is older than our car. It’s still working so I’m hesitant to replace it.

All in all, we’re not lacking for anything, but we don’t live luxuriously. Someday, I’d like to spend more on nicer things, but not yet. These things aren’t that important to me so I don’t mind living a modest lifestyle. I would like a nicer TV, though. A 55” 4k TV cost less than what we paid for our old 42” TV in 2006. (I thought electronics have built-in obsolescence. Why is this TV lasting so long? Apparently, we don’t watch enough TV.)

mazda 5 hole liftgate

Experience – 8

Everyone is touting experience over material things these days. Personally, I like to give them equal weighting. I love new experiences, but I enjoy nice stuff too. However, I’m a bit looser with money when it comes to spending on experiences. We traveled to many places and enjoyed all our trips. We went rafting, snowboarding, skydiving, and experienced many other fun activities. It’s been good. I give myself an 8 here.

Marriage – 10

I split the family category into two parts, marriage and kids. I lucked out with my marriage, big time. Mrs. RB40 is the perfect partner for me. We enjoy each other’s company and we’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary in a few months. We make a great team. On the other hand, we’ll need to be vigilant and continue to improve our marriage. People still get a divorce after 25 or 30 years. You have to work on it to keep a marriage strong. Hopefully, we’ll go the distance.

Kid – 7

This one is incomplete because our son is quite young. We’re trying to do a good job, but it’s hard. He still gets in trouble at school occasionally. Just last week, he was sent to the principal office. He got in a little altercation with a friend at school. Fortunately, he’s in trouble less often than in previous years. Anyway, if someone hits you, you gotta hit back. Can’t fault a kid too much for fighting back, right?

Luckily, he’s smart and enjoys reading so we don’t have to worry about school work. He is doing well academically for now. Lastly, he’s slowly growing more resilient. He is able to shrug things off better now. Last year, he’d cry if he fell down during a soccer game, but now he shrugs it off and get back to the game without too much trouble. He’s making progress, that’s great.

All in all, our son is doing okay. Truthfully, I’m not sure why I give myself a 7 here. I just feel like I could do a better job. The biggest issue we have right now is screen time. He spends too much time with the tablet. I need to sign him up for more outdoor activities now that the weather has improved.

Engineering career – 3

Professionally, I wasn’t very successful. I was a good engineer and I liked the technical work, but I wasn’t able to move up professionally. I disliked the leadership role and couldn’t get ahead as a senior engineer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make any meaningful contribution to the field. The things I worked on are all obsolete now. It’s somewhat disappointing, but I guess that’s the same for most professionals. Only a few people make a lasting impact in any field.

Blogging – 7

As for my 2nd act, I feel more successful as a blogger. I’ve been blogging for 9 years and I still enjoy it. Retire by 40 isn’t the biggest blog or make the most money, but it’s doing better than I ever thought possible. I’m quite content with how Retire by 40 is doing.

I give myself a 7 here because there is room for improvement.

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Money – 9

I think we’ve done very well financially. Our net worth is good and we feel financially secure. The only debt we have is our mortgage. Our retirement savings is excellent compared to the average US household. We’re not rich, but we’re in better shape financially than most people.

My main financial goal is to have enough passive income to cover our living expense. We’re almost there so I feel good about our finance. Once our FI ratio exceeds 100% for 3 consecutive years, I’ll give myself a 10 here.

Fame – 7

Fame is not important to me at all. Why would anyone want to be famous? It seems like a pain in the caboose. To me, fame seems pretty much useless. I guess you can parlay fame into income somehow.

That’s said, I think I have plenty of fame from blogging. Many people have visited Retire by 40 over the years or have read about me. I’m quite happy with this level of fame. I guess it is equivalent to a D-list level celebrity…

Power – 3

Hmmm… Power is important to some people, but not me. I guess I have some influence as a blogger, but that’s not much power. I’ll give myself a 3 here and I’m happy with that.

Who really cares about power anyway? Politicians and managers, I guess.

Legacy – 3

Legacy is tough. I don’t feel like I’ll leave much impact on the world once I’m gone. That’s normal, though. Most people just live their regular lives the best they can. I admire people who make a big positive impact, but that’s just not me.

I guess I’m one of the first FIRE bloggers so I made some positive impact to a few people’s lives. I’m not sure if the FIRE movement is a fad or not, though. All these FIRE blogs and podcasts probably will fade away with time. Anyway, I give myself a low score here, just a 3.

Philanthropy – 2

Sadly, I’m horrible at philanthropy. I give a little bit, but probably much less than most people. I hope to improve in the future. It’s just not a priority at this time.

Spiritual – 2

This one is tough for me. I’m just not very spiritual. My parents are Buddhist, but I only know a little bit about it. There aren’t any temples nearby and I’m not too interested.

I don’t think many of us have time for spirituality these days. We’re all too busy with our lives. I’d like to learn about Buddhism when I’m older. It should be easier once I spend more time in Thailand. I plan to live there half-time once our son goes off to college.

Health – 8

I’m doing well with health. We usually cook healthy meals at home and I exercise regularly. Also, I don’t have many vices. I enjoy a drink once in a while and that’s about it. No drugs, cigarette, or loud music. Yes, I’m pretty boring. My genetic isn’t that great, though. That’s why I don’t have a higher score here.

Freedom – 9

This one is personal freedom. I have a ton of freedom now and I love it. Being self-employed is the best. I don’t have a boss and I could work at my own pace. Life is really good now. Retiring from my engineering career was the right choice for me.

I was successful at seizing my freedom when the opportunity presented itself. Early retirement worked out really well for me.

Contentment – 8

This is the one that matters most. I think it’s even more important than the overall score. I’ve been successful with some items and didn’t do so well with others. However, I’m quite content with my life. I’m successful enough at the things that are meaningful to me and my family.

I got low scores on power, legacy, philanthropy, and spirituality. But they don’t mean that much to me so those failures don’t impact my contentment much. I wish I was more successful in my engineering career, though. It would have been nice to make a meaningful contribution to the field.

Family, health, money, and personal freedom are much more important to me. I’ve been largely successful in those categories. That’s why my contentment score is pretty good.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Do I consider myself successful?

I’m successful in some facets of life. However, I’m also unsuccessful in others. It’s a mixed bag. Even my Success Matrix doesn’t tell the whole story. My overall score is mediocre, but I’m quite content with life. Ultimately, who’s the judge of success? It’s you and your immediate family’s opinion that matters the most. As long as you’re successful in those eyes, you’ve done well.

In conclusion, I consider myself a moderate success. Good thing I’m still relatively young. I still have years to improve my success score.

How about you? Do you consider yourself successful? How do you measure success?

Image by Bruce Mars

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