In an interview, you want to make a good first impression by choosing your words wisely and representing yourself sincerely. There’s a lot on the line if you don’t, like financial security and your well-being.
Although you can’t predict exactly what a hiring manager will ask you, you can practice answers to common interview questions. Hiring managers have studied your resume and determined you have the technical skills to fulfill the job requirements. The interview is to see if you’re a good personality fit — like whether you have values, aspirations, and interpersonal skills that fit the company’s culture.
“How do you define success?” is one such question that digs at the heart of your personality. What you think success, determines the goals you set and how you motivate yourself to achieve them. For interviewers, understanding your goal-setting style and motivators tells them whether your process aligns with the team you’ll be joining.
In simple terms, success is accomplishing a goal.
But the goals everyone establishes for themselves are highly personal — and there aren’t any wrong answers.
You have unique experiences, values, and resources that shape your perspective and priorities, as does everyone else. So you’ll set goals to measure success differently than others, including close friends or coworkers one cubicle over.
Most people set goals based on intrinsic rewards instead of external pressures because this personal interest makes them more motivated to achieve these objectives. Having a sense of purpose also improves critical thinking and decision-making. But these intrinsic rewards differ significantly between people.
Imagine two graphic designers. One might define success as having a recognizable personal brand and an agenda consistently full of big-name clients and new projects. The other might define success as enjoying a few retainers with steady accounts.
These disparate goals reflect two types of intrinsic rewards. The first designer may feel happier when they’re busy and love learning new skills. The second designer might want a more relaxing work-life balance.
Why do interviewers ask, “How do you define success?”
A key reason interviewers ask “How do you define success?” is because it’s an open-ended question, which means you can provide a detailed answer that reflects who you are (as opposed to a closed-off question, which you’d answer “Yes” or “No” to).
Hiring managers don’t exclusively seek candidates with skills and experiences that fit the job description. Many employers value personality and cultural alignment more than hard skills.
Businesses want new hires who mesh with the company culture and quickly transition into their new work environment. Hiring costs businesses time and resources — a hire that doesn’t fit in and resigns quickly can cost an organization up to three times that employee’s salary.
Finding a cohesive workplace is the desired outcome for most jobseekers, too. When workers’ personal goals and values align with their employer, they’re more likely to stay. Answering honestly increases the chance you’ll join a team you like and won’t have to start a new job search in a few months.
4 tips for answering “How do you define success?”
Preparing your answer to “How do you define success?” will help you make a good first impression — even if they don’t ask this question. You’ll better understand your motivators and what you hope to get from an employer to ensure everyone finds a good fit.
Here are four tips to help you prepare your answer:
Every job interview question boils down to, “Why should we hire you?” To confidently answer these sorts of questions, you need to know what you’re worth — and this takes self-reflection.
Look within and build this self-awareness by asking yourself the following questions:
What’s the best-case scenario for my career in five years?
In what direction have I led my career over the last five years?
What kind of work environment do I prefer?
What values do I want an organization to share with me?
What does work-life balance look like to me?
What are five soft skills I’ve developed?
If you find it difficult to focus on your strengths and desires because of low self-esteem or imposter syndrome, try repeating affirmations daily, like “I’m allowed to take up space” and “My life is full of amazing opportunities that are ready for me to step into.”
2. Incorporate your knowledge about the company
Reading up on the company you’re applying to is a good strategy for every stage of the job hunt. Check out the organization’s website and read its mission statement and company goals. Likewise, social media platforms like LinkedIn, blog posts, or keynote speeches provide insight into the company’s values, team goals, and definition of success.
Your personal outlook on success likely won’t change drastically, but the way you express it should shift from one company to the next. Pay careful attention to the vocabulary the organization uses to describe itself and the cultural pillars it repeats across communications.
If a company aims to disrupt the market, for example, highlight innovation and a persistent work ethic. If a company wants to sit tight with its legacy, consider discussing employee loyalty and longevity.
3. Show, don’t just tell
Hiring managers ask behavioral interview questions to get a feel for your personality. To stress your working style and preferences, show rather than tell with convincing examples and metrics to demonstrate your motivations and thinking process.
For example, if you define success by feeling a sense of purpose in your work, share previous milestones where you had a positive impact.
4. Highlight your soft skills
It’s easy to include hard skills on a resume, like computer program proficiencies or coding language experience. But soft skills such as time management and conflict resolution are just as important. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talents Trends report:
If you define success as being a strong leader, don’t just leave it there. Explain past experiences that have taught you communication skills to stimulate strong teamwork, active listening skills to understand coworkers, and negotiation skills to advocate for your ideas.
4 example answers for defining success
While the role and your professional experience will likely dictate your definition of success, here are a few examples you can tweak for your situation:
Example #1: Entry-level applicant
“During college, I did two summer internships. I noticed a big difference regarding how our teams connected in each. With one group, we shared communication, listening, and creation styles. On the other, we struggled to align our ideas and efforts.
Both teams had incredible individual members, but the synergy was completely different. I learned that successful people are the product of good teamwork, and at this stage of my career, success is being a great team player that eventually leads even greater teams.
Example #2: Contractor
“After a decade of fast-paced hard work as a software engineer, I realized I wasn’t prioritizing my well-being — and neither was my employer. So I decided to leave my full-time job to become an entrepreneur and run my own business.
Success for me is having a work-life balance that allows me to deliver great work to my clients while taking care of other important priorities, like spending time with my kids.”
Why it works: This answer is transparent, clearly lays out the candidate’s values, and indirectly demonstrates a straightforward communication style.
Example #3: Manager
“Success to me is being the manager I wish I had when starting out. My first supervisor set poorly defined expectations and didn’t show appreciation for our hard work. I want to never lose sight of the fact that employees can only meet objectives if they know what they are and how to get there. And for many, positive encouragement is more motivating than criticism, so we must balance every feedback type to respect different people’s motivators.”
Why it works: This answer demonstrates the candidate’s ability to self-reflect, empathize, and take a non-ego-driven management approach.
Example #4: High-level executive
“Success throughout my career has been to step back and have a holistic understanding of an organization’s needs. It’s easy to prioritize big short-term successes, like driving profits for stakeholders, and forget about long-term goals, like retaining your best talent. I resonated with the company’s mission statement about striving for excellence from top to bottom of the company. I love seeing my impact across the entire organization.”
Why it works: This answer quickly summarizes their career trajectory and shows that the candidate did their homework reading up on the company.
How to measure professional success
You can define a successful career in several ways — here are a few things to consider when deciding on examples to provide in interviews:
Increased revenue: Even if you aren’t in a department that directly impacts revenue, like sales or marketing, every member of an organization adds to profitability. If you can access company profit metrics, find ways you or your team contributed to a previous employer’s bottom line.
For example, if you worked in human resources, explain how your department streamlined processes to improve productivity.
More responsibility: Consistent promotions is a sign of career success. And looking back at your career trajectory is a smart way to project future progress. Examine your responsibilities, title changes, and salary growth, looking for common links that helped you get where you are today.
Excellent team skills: Any upskilling reflects success. If you see growth in your ability to communicate your ideas, listen and empathize with coworkers, and collaborate across departments and roles, this shows you’ve experienced success regarding personal and professional development.
Cheers to more successful interviews
“How do you define success?” is an interview question that helps hiring managers and candidates gauge whether the job’s a match. It’s not a trick question — “right” answers look different for every job seeker.
Answering this question properly also helps you understand what success is to you. Maybe you’ve never considered it before and will learn something about yourself, or perhaps you have but you find your priorities have shifted. Either way, reflecting on this question increases the chance you’ll give an honest answer that impresses the listener.