What Is the Third Metric of Success?

Agnieszka Perlinska responds to a call for defining the “Third Metric” of success.

On June 6, 2013 Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski hosted a conference called The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power. They brought many distinguished women leaders and “a few good men” (in their own words) to explore more humane and sustainable ways to measure success.

“We’ve all bought into this male definition of success, money and power, and it’s not working… it is not working for anyone,” Arianna Huffington posted in her blog, “Let us know how you’re redefining success in your own lives, what hurdles you’re facing, how you’re overcoming them (or not), and what your thoughts are about work and life and well-being and wisdom. It’s time to redefine success,” she wrote.

What additional metric should measure success? I could not resist asking myself that question… To my surprise, a word immediately came to mind. That word was: meaning. Both excited and cautious (I get suspicious when something comes easily to me), I decided to check my thinking step by step.

What’s success anyway?

I like to define success by how I contribute to the quality of life, my own and others. This definition has a built-in challenge, however: who should benefit and when? Should it be me or should it be others?

I realize that other definitions have challenges as well. For example: If you define success by wealth, the tough choice could be about the methods by which wealth is acquired. If you define success by power, the tough choice could be about how power ends up being used: to influence or to control and manipulate? In sum, defining and measuring success is not easy.

Why create metrics for success anyway?

Most people like to know how well they’re doing, especially in comparison to others. We get preoccupied with our rank and our worth. Like all primates, people are biologically wired to strive for status and belonging. If we can’t be an Alpha to everyone, then we try to be an Alpha to at least some. By nature we also need to belong to a group. As we choose to live in a group, we also live by that group’s norms. For those people who are on a path to self-realization, creating metrics for success ties to the need of knowing how significantly they’ve grown. This could be according to their own or their group’s values.

Why are money and power success measures?

Many groups adopt wealth as a value and a metric. In our society, for example, we use money as a measure of wealth. In other societies it might be land, or as in the Masaya culture, cattle. Both money and power are a convenient way to keep score. Money can be easily counted and compared. Power, if understood as the amount of control one has over one’s own life and the lives of others, can also be evaluated and compared. Comparisons based on money and power are often interpreted as someone’s measure of worth and importance.

What is the problem with money and power?

The Third Metric Conference participants noted that many people today drive themselves to the ground pursuing money and power. Many experience frustration, burnout, and ill health instead of true success. I would say that as metrics, money and power fail because they are inaccurate, arbitrary and external. They are means of getting things done. But as measures, money and power most accurately show how good someone is at growing a bank account or a sphere of influence. They do not necessarily reflect how good someone is at achieving joy, satisfaction or fulfillment. In addition, neither metric necessarily reflects people’s internal values. Rather, money and power often drive choices influenced by external opinion.

How does “meaning” fit into measuring success?

I believe that meaning allows us to shift how we measure success from the external to the internal. I thought of my grandmother, Konstancja Perlinska, who always saved money and who always made choices to have control over her life. She was born in Poland under the Russian tsar. She escaped the hard peasant life at the age of sixteen and walked on foot to Warsaw in search of a better living. In a free Polish state after World War I, she became a maid, then a seamstress. She married and worked hard. When World War II broke out, she survived by bartering, making soap and moonshine. She was an expert at securing means for her family. She also used her money to buy a piece of land, which she settled on after the war when the communists took over. At the time when everything and everyone was controlled by the government—except for small farms—she chose to be an independent farmer. It was not an easy life but she had the luxury of living on her own terms, to the extent possible under the circumstances. She considered herself successful. My grandmother always counted her money and she made sure she had as much control as possible. But those were only external measures. The real measures were brought by the meaning of her choices: she was able to maintain her integrity, support those she loved, and she never needed to ask anyone for anything. She stayed self-sufficient until her final days.

Excited about my analysis, I called Chip Chapados (my partner at LPI and one of “the few good men” in my own words) and asked him what he thought. “I think you’re right,” he said after a moment of reflection. “If we define meaning as change that happens for better or worse, and if we contextualize that as human change, then meaning does make sense as the third metric.”

“Let’s define meaning, then, ” I suggested. As we often tell our clients, vague concepts cannot lead to effective action. Chip offered an interesting perspective: “If you think about it, that which has meaning to us usually involves change…or growth, or deterioration, for that matter. We usually find most meaning in that which involves a positive shift in how we think, feel and function or how others think, feel and function.” I liked Chip’s take on the meaning of meaning. “So for all practical purposes, we can equate, and thus define, meaning as change,” I summed up. Chip confirmed: “Something has meaning if, from your point of view, it changes things for better or worse. It could be for you or for your family, friends, employees, community, company, or society at large.”

We continued our discussion of the third metric for a few more minutes. “All observation is subjective, and that makes meaning as measure truly internal,” I remarked. “What I think is a positive or a negative change might be different from what others perceive. This also poses a challenge.” Chip agreed: “We are not very good at assessing the significance of meaning or any one change. But that should never stop us from trying. Consciously deciding on the meaning we want to create in our lives is still critical to living successfully and necessary to measuring our behavior better.”

“That brings up the point of why we really need measureswe need them to influence our own behavior!” I exclaimed, surprised that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. “Measures drive behavior, and that’s why it’s important to reflect on how we want to measure ourselves.” Chip thought for a second. “As I think of it now, the search is not only for the third metric but also for the right metric.”

Chip’s distinction made a lot of sense. “I believe,” he explained further, “that establishing the right measures depends on our ability to live a pragmatic and truthful life. First, based on what you observe, define your own terms. What are you really after? How do you define your goals? How will you know that you are closer to them? Second, find and use the right measures to assess your life’s quality—or, if you will, meaning. Third, stay consistent. Don’t suddenly start using different measures just because someone else is using them in his or her life. Fourth, if you change your measures, make it a conscious decision.”

“It all comes back to reflection,” I concluded. “A life unexamined is not worth living, as Socrates taught.” My conversation with Chip made me realize that whatever third metric of success one adopts, it has to be generated by introspection and a desire to live life consciously. We need to understand ourselves first. We need to understand those we lead. We need to understand both where we lead and where we follow. We need to understand how to change what is in order to create something that’s better. Finally, the third metric should not only help us keep track of how well we’re doing, but also support and influence our behavior.

“If we choose the right measures, then we have a way of telling if we are contributing to our own or to others quality of life,” I said out loud.

Chip had the last word: “We all need the right measures to better guide our own behavior and make better choices: to be able to renew oneself, contribute to others, live passionately and fully, connect with others or the higher power. No question. Meaning as a metric of success does offer an opportunity at self-reflection and self-leadership, which are also the foundation for leading others the best we can.”