The Definition of Financial Success is Not So Obvious

Abandoned Tataouine set for the shooting of the movie Star Wars in the Sahara desert on a background of sand dunes. Used in this blog post as an analogy for financial success.
Tataouine, not Batuu.

The Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction opened at both Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, in 2019. Despite the long-awaited openings, Disney stock analysts were disappointed to see overall theme park attendance down 3% in the fiscal third quarter. 

Visitors to the planet Batuu meet face-to-face with the Millennium Falcon and a cadre of stormtroopers but do not face massive crowds and unbearable lines. 

Bob Chapek, Chairman of Parks at the time and future ousted CEO, said:

The deep secret is that we don’t intend to have lines. If you build in enough capacity, the rides don’t go down, and it operates at 99% efficiency, you shouldn’t have 10-hour lines. So, 10-hour lines are not a sign of success. It should be seen as a sign of, frankly, failure.

As it turns out, attendance numbers and the associated revenue aren’t how Disney measures the success of Galaxy’s Edge.

Disney defines success as delivering an unmatched customer experience without the waits. Customer surveys indicate that visitor satisfaction at Galaxy’s Edge ranks among the highest of all the attractions at the Disney amusement parks.

Success is not always what it’s perceived to be. 

What is Financial Success?

Defining success in any discipline depends on who is setting expectations.

If I were to attempt to run a marathon, success would be to finish and not get injured. But a more experienced runner with a few races under his/her belt may set a goal to run a sub-four-hour marathon time.

We could both accomplish our goals and consider ourselves successful. Success is not mutually exclusive.

Financial success is the same. You and I have different goals and ways of defining financial success. But if I don’t achieve the same level of wealth or income as you, that doesn’t make me a failure. 

We tend to compare ourselves to others when it comes to career achievement and money, even though we have limited information about the financials of our peers. Comparing ourselves to others a useless exercise rooted in envy.

But we all do it.

More money — earning, saving, and spending it — is not an accurate measurement of financial success. 

Money is just one part of financial success. The more critical aspect of financial success is how we utilize, conserve, and compound the money we earn.

People at various stages of life and wealth may pinpoint financial success on specific goals, such as eliminating debt, saving a fixed sum in the bank, or paying for a child’s college education.

Those are all steps along the way. 

One definition of financial success is when we accumulate enough money to support our ideal lives for the rest of our lives — defined simply as financial independence

But a more complete definition combines wealth and wisdom.

Someone earning $1 million per year is not financially successful if they spend $1 million. 

How the $1 million is treated once attained is what determines financial success. Is it spent blindly or cherished and stashed away to solidify financial security? Does the income enable an ideal life? 

Financial success cannot be determined by visible wealth, like a big house or a fancy sports car. Nor can it be defined by arbitrary numbers or percentages.

It’s not about one-upping your neighbor or business rival or earning an above-average salary for your zip code.

It’s about optimizing your finances in alignment with your values and what makes you the happiest.

Define “Ideal Life”

Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been. ― David Bowie

A good friend was backpacking in Australia years ago and came across an abrasive fellow traveler in a hostel bar. He asked my friend his opinion on a nearby tourist excursion outside of the city. 

My friend responded with something like, “Oh, it was cool. We had a fun day out there. Good tour.”

The arrogant vagabond leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and responded: “Define cool.”

My friend was speechless and went back to his beer. The phrase became a recurring joke during our Ireland road trip.

“Define craic.”

How can you define something as broad as an ideal life? Is there only one perfect life that someone can live? Of course not.

An ideal life is, perhaps, the life you’re living today. Or, some combination of being happy where you are now (a result of where you’ve been) and improving upon that each day for rest of your life. 

Financial success empowers you to live the ideal life — a happy life. But money alone doesn’t make it happen. It’s the wisdom you apply to the money you earn and keep. Too much money can even detract from living your best life if you do stupid things with it. 

Happiness is not a straight line. As popularized in the book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch, happiness is more of a curved smile.

My life has followed this trajectory so far. I’m on the upswing.

The sooner one acknowledges the things (family, relationships, community, travel, good health, purpose, meaningful work, simple pleasures, etc.) that bring happiness and fulfillment, the sooner life will naturally evolve to prioritize those things and eliminate distractions, accelerating the upswing.

What Does Financial Success Mean to You?

I interviewed for an internship at a boutique financial adviser firm for the summer before my senior year of college. By the end of the interview, six people were hotboxing me in a small conference room, asking philosophical questions entirely unrelated to the position.

The last question the company president asked me was what I wanted to get out of life. My response was, I just want to be happy.

Wrong answer. Maybe he was hoping I’d formulate a bullshit response that I wanted to use this internship as a launching pad for a wildly successful financial services career, one that would bring them whale-size clients and make me rich in the process.

My failure to read the situation and deliver the right answer solidified my destiny as an unpaid intern at Merrill Lynch that summer, where I learned I didn’t want to become a fee-gobbling financial adviser.

But it was a truthful answer that remains true today.  

Happiness and professional fulfillment motivate me today. Approaching 50, I’ve finally attained a healthy level of financial independence. And since leaving my previous job, I’ve found career satisfaction. I’m no longer waiting for retirement to be happy. 

I tend to over-prioritize financial goals and success because personal finance is my business and hobby. Finance is fun and measurable to the penny.

But it’s the other side of success that I’ve focused on more in the last few years — prioritizing more important things than money.

How do you measure financial success?

Disclosure: Long DIS. This post was originally published in September 2019. It’s been updated to reflect my current thinking. 
Photo via DepositPhotos used under license.

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