Defining Success

by Grace Bonney

I woke up at 5:45 am this morning in a little town outside of Woodstock, NY surrounded by the people and things that mean the most to me. Julia and I are taking a two-week working vacation up in the Catskills and we brought the whole (pet) family with us – including our friends’ dog, Fluffnut. I’ve been wanting to unplug and get away from everything, but the reality is, these days that’s pretty impossible. So rather than overworking and pre-loading content to take a few days off from the computer, we decided to go somewhere quiet that has WiFi and access to the things we need to keep working. Julia’s working on a cookbook and I’m working on my normal posts and some big-picture business planning, but we’re both happy to be working away from our normal noisy neighborhood. The dogs and cat are pretty happy to get away, too.

As I pulled my laptop onto my lap this morning, I kept getting distracted by an issue of People magazine sitting on the counter. It’s my go-to impulse buy at any grocery store and today a short interview with musician Ed Sheeran caught my eye. At the end of the interview they asked him what success looked like to him. His answer struck a chord (no pun intended) with me. He said, “I think the meaning of life is family. If I can have a wife, kids, animals and a house – that is success.” I found myself nodding and then staring out the window a bit, realizing that my own personal journey has been about coming to the same realization. It took me a while, but these days, I find that defining success means focusing less on tangible things and more on the intangible moments that teach us something about who we really are and what we really want.

*Photo above by Casey Stark from the #dscolor feed on Instagram

Read on to hear the four questions I ask myself every night to stay in touch with what matters most…

When I started Design*Sponge 10 years ago, my goals were simple: to find a place to talk about the things I loved and to find a few people to share that conversation. The site grew beyond anything I could have ever imagined and that has been one of the greatest surprises, and gifts, in my life so far. I never expected to be running a business 10 years later or be managing a business that supported friends and co-workers, too. It’s been a great and ongoing challenge to balance the business and editorial side of my job, but it’s a challenge I feel honored to have.

That said, I find that as I grow older, I crave fewer things and the things I do crave come from a place of heritage, tradition and slowness. Instead of seeking out more and more varieties of things, I want fewer – and I want those fewer things to be functional and personal. When I tell other bloggers and friends about this desire for less and less, I find people share the same sentiment, but also share the accompanying feeling of dread. Dread that comes from a place of worrying that that my desire to have less is bad for business.

We all work in a community based around the idea of NEW and what’s the latest/hottest/coolest something. Searching for those things used to excite me and then it kept me up at night worrying that I wouldn’t find that thing fast enough or before someone else. So I naturally found myself turning away from so much product coverage and writing more about what it took to create a space (rented, owned, small, big – it doesn’t matter) that felt like home.

While sifting through emails and comments related to our reader survey last week, many people wrote asking for more (and more frequent) trend coverage, product roundups and greater numbers of posts about items that are under $25. I sat with those requests for a long time. They resonated strongly because they echo so much of what the internet is about right now: demanding more and more and in smaller, bite-sized pieces. I read and re-read each request and tried to get at the core of what people wanted. I sat down and thought about hiring someone to just cover trends and products and then I caught myself doing that slide so many of us recognize – the slide into what we think we’re supposed to do to make everyone happy. It’s a slide that often comes at the expense of what makes us happy.

Then it hit me: I have to find a way to make these requests and that content fit within the lens of what we believe. I will never be able to make everyone happy, but if I can work harder to give people more of what they want, but presented in a way that best expresses what our site believes in, we’ll have a better chance at making both ourselves, and readers, happy.

The definition of success that’s easy to fall into is one that produces the biggest results: the most readers, the most pageviews, the most press and the most financial success. But the one that really matters to me these days is one that focuses on how I feel when I settle into bed each night. Am I proud of what I put out into the world today? Have I been respectful to and appreciative of the people and things that mean the most to me? Am I able to support myself and contribute to my family’s well-being? Am I, along with my family, happy and healthy? If I can say “yes” to all of these questions, I feel that I’ve reached the sort of success that means something to me. Sure, I regularly have days where I can’t say “yes” to all of these – or any of these – but the closer I get to having all these bases covered, the closer I feel to attaining the sort of success that matters to me.

There’s nothing wrong with striving for “more” and “better,” but the question I find most helpful to come back to over and over is, “Who and what do I want by my side when I’m 85?” Will it be endless stacks of magazines and inexpensive ombre vases? Or will it be a sense of peace and quiet and someone to share it with? Chances are, it will be a little bit of both (I will always love vases). For me, success is about a constant balancing act: Working towards gleaning out the things that don’t make me feel happy, calm and whole and slowly adding things, people and moments that make me feel like I’m exactly where I want to be. – xo, grace

What does success mean for all of you? Has it changed as you’ve gotten older? Does the success you’ve achieved feel different than you expected when you aimed for it? What are the things that make you sleep well at night? I’m curious to know the core questions and touchstones we all set for ourselves to stay in tuned with what matters most to each of us.

Suggested For You


  • Success for me used to be how fast I could be promoted to the next grade level in my Federal government job, and being able to buy a house and all the things I wanted as I made more money. Then I got sick. I now live on social security disability and my days of buying $1500 pairs of earrings are over. I’ve struggled about what success means to me now. My Mom died last year, and I finally realized that a successful life is having family and many friends. I now have neither, since I moved away from the big city to come home to rural North Dakota to be with my mom after I got sick 5 years ago, I realized that all those friends I had were more superficial then I thought. Since it’s only me and my dog now, I have to start the process of rebuilding my life and finding new, good friends and hopefully someday, a husband. I no longer care about money and all the trappings of success, I just want to be surrounded by people who truly know me and love me. It’s taken my mom’s death and reaching 50 to come to these conclusions. Wisdom does come with age, but I wish I had realized the importance of friends and family many years ago, instead of worrying when my next promotion was. I could’ve enjoyed the love of my mom, and dad, if I had come home sooner. Such is life. Sometimes it takes unexpected life changes to see what you should’ve seen long ago.

  • I remember reading this post back when you first wrote it but just re-read it following your 2014. I love everything about what you’ve written and for the last six months since reading this, I’ve asked myself that question – am I proud of what I put out into the world today? That one little (big!) question prompted me to rethink my career Grace. I’m feeling much happier about the direction of my life. I never said thank you so I’m doing that now!

  • Being a sister to three other sisters, that all happened to be cheerleaders in their growing years, what comes to my mind when anyone wants to know the meaning of success is them cheering loudly in our home:

    S U C C E S S …..that’s how we spell success, do we have it
    Yes Yes Yes!
    ………….. S U C C E S S!

    I have had the whole deal from the fairy tale wedding the 2.0 perfect children, the house in the country, travel, love, good family and friends and now at 50+ I realize that success is confidence, because at every part our lives we must head into the new and when we take chances and follow our hearts we make success because we tried to do something and did it! So I still have to remember that cheer as I approach the changes of middle age with confidence:
    S U C C E S S that is how we spell success, do we have it Yes Yes Yes!

  • I love this, so thought provoking! I completely agree with your points, I have recently found myself to be appreciating the ‘small’ things in life, but I’m realising that these are actually the big things that matter most!
    Hannah x

  • Have you ever seen the “It all Goes Back in the Box” video on you tube? If you haven’t you might like it. To me, success is being the best me i can be. This has to do with loving deeply, making good choices and having a deep spiritual connection….using my life to make a difference for good. PS: Always loved the title of the musical, “You Can’t Take it With You”.

  • Hi Grace:

    My personal success is knowing that I have taken care of the needs of my family, that I have provided joy, happiness, and encouragement, appreciation, and a smile each day…

    It is going to sleep each night with confidence knowing that I have not compromised my personal integrity.

    My business success is receiving a special email or letter from a dear customer, and reading of how my work and products have changed or impacted their lives, or the lives of their loved ones…

    Knowing that I am able to share my story and inspire others and to bring something special into the world to change it for the better no matter how small the change may seem.

    I have followed DR for the last 6 years and have always been so inspired.

  • Love this post. You don’t need a survey to see what your readers want: your intuition is always spot on. And success? I haven’t given that word much consideration since I was 24. Living your best life is all about being content, creating joy and being inspired.
    Thanks for sharing your contemplations.

  • good thing we’ve been able to grow up “together.” Your insights and comments are better than any $25 vase. My favorite part of your blog is how your are transforming your home, from a very human perspective. I am always guilty of thinking that I am never doing quite enough or that happiness or success has to be more than what i have accomplished. But Ed Sheeran’s comment said to me, YES, it is enough! I have the family, the home and the animals, and that is pretty darn good and pretty darn successful, and i am proud of years of hard work. I agree with Patty, above. you don’t need a survey–just keep doing your thing!

  • Really great post and so true. I remember hearing that your time is the only finite resource you have, and since then I have tried to frame things I buy or work on in that way (would I buy this cheap $30 thing, or would I rather spend an hour hanging out with my husband?) and I have re-evaluated a lot of things this way.

  • Oh, wow. This resonates with me deeply. I used to think that my happiness + worth in life depended on “success”, which to me equaled living in New York/LA or overseas and working a high-stress, high-power job somewhere. A title meant success. And that works for some people. But I’m human, not a title, and life is so much more than work. Even as just a 20 year old, I am developing the same mindset—which is terrifying because it makes me feel like I will not succeed at all—that I need need to keep pushing and straining and making others happy, and after I have some sort of partial success I can finally settle into this mindset later in my life. It’s a battle of wanting to please others and yourself, a battle of figuring out what I want and what society makes me desire.

    Thank you for sharing and starting such a great conversation. Truly, “What will I want when I’m 85?” is such an important question. Not that we could ever know what our future self will want or who they will be, but it sheds light on how important family, relationships, well-crafted and meaningful material possessions are.

  • The best definition of success I know comes from Maya Angelou: “Success is liking who you are, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Great post

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