How do you define success?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Justin Swartzmiller
  • 726th Air Mobility Squadron
About ten years ago my then squadron commander asked me, "What is your definition of success?" The question caught me completely off-guard, as this was not part of a feedback session rather he just returned from an appointment and frankly it was an awkward way to begin a conversation. I honestly do not recall how I answered the question but probably answered along the lines of achieving retirement eligibility in the Air Force while making a difference every day. However, the answer was not nearly important at the time as the question.

My commander shared a story with me that was very impactful and I frequently share with our squadron members. The appointment my commander came from was a retirement ceremony for a previous boss and mentor of his. My commander was a Lieutenant Colonel and the retiree being honored was a Lieutenant General. As my commander started telling me this story I could see the seriousness in his eyes and I began to listen. 

My commander stated the ceremony was exceptional and very well done. He commented that since he previously served with the general and he was also his mentor he waited until near the end to go through the receiving line, as to not delay anyone so he could truly thank the general in semi-private. The time came and my commander was the last to go through the receiving line. As he stepped up in front of the general to shake his hand, the general immediately recognized him and thanked him for coming. My commander said he congratulated the general on a successful career and thanked him for his long dedicated service. 

The general briefly looked to his left and his right and replied, "What makes you think I had a successful career?" My commander replied, "Sir, you served nearly 30 years, shaped and effected a lot of careers and achieved the rank of 3-star; a rank only a very select few individuals accomplish."

The general replied, "That is all true but amongst all the pomp and circumstances today did you notice my family was not in attendance?"

"Yes sir, I assumed that they are helping plan your next chapter to aid the transition." 

The general replied, "Not exactly. You see I was all Air Force, all the time. My wife and I are in the middle of a very heated divorce, my daughter who is in college does not talk to me anymore since I have not 'been there' in her time of need during the trying high school years and I do not have the normal father-son relationship with my son. So, yes from the outside, others might say I had a successful career, but I would definitely do some things differently, if I could."

My commander thanked the general for everything he had done to affect his career, congratulated him once again and quietly left.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as: 1) the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame; 2) the correct or desired result of an attempt ;or 3) someone or something that is successful, a person or thing that succeeds. Another source, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, defines success as: 1) the achieving of the results wanted or hoped for; or 2) something that achieves positive results.  Lastly, Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associate Terms does not define success. Therefore, as there is no consistent agreed upon definition I believe each person much define what success means in their own lives and this is ultimately what my commander was trying to get me to realize.

I encourage you to reflect upon this story, define what success means in your life, set goals and move out toward achieving your defined success. Success is different for everyone. You should not cage your definition in terms of a specific rank or longevity milestone nor allow someone else to project what their view of success is upon you. 

Lastly, remember to include those most important to you in your life as you codify your definition of success and most importantly, always remember to balance the four domains of physical, social, mental and spiritual fitness.