“How Do You Define Success?” Interview Question (+ Example Answers)

By Mike Simpson

How do you define success? What a devil of a question. Success is such a subjective concept that everyone likely views it at least a teeny bit differently.

Plus, the mere task of describing success could leave even the most qualified candidates reeling. It’s such a personal thing, making it inherently challenging to put your perspective into words.

We get it. When a hiring manager asks about how you define success, it almost feels like a trap.

Luckily, in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t. Technically, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. However, that doesn’t mean some aren’t better than others. If you want to make sure you handle the “how do you define success” question well, let’s take a look at how to tackle it.

What Is the Meaning of “Success”?

Alright, before you dig into the answers, we need to pause for a second. You can’t talk about how you define success if you don’t have a grasp on what “success” actually means. To start on the road toward figuring that out, let’s see what the Merriam-Webster dictionary has to say.

So, the first definition – “degree or measure of succeeding” – admittedly isn’t very helpful. But, the next one – favorable or desired outcome – is a bit better. For many, success means reaching a goal, accomplishing a task, or otherwise accomplishing what they set out to do.

If you look at the definition of “succeed,” you get a similar story. One of the options on the list is “to turn out well.” Well, if that isn’t just so succinct and pleasant.

Essentially, something is a success when the outcome turns out well, is desirable, or is favorable. Beyond that, the definition of success is personal.

But, even if you see it differently than everyone else, your definition is important. It influences your motivation and drive. And, when it comes to your career, how you see success affects your choices and priorities, ultimately shaping the path you take.

Why Does the Hiring Manager Ask This Question?

Another pitstop before we look at how to answer the question “how do you define success” is to take a moment and examine why the hiring manager is asking you this in the first place. After all, it is a bit of an odd question, so there has to be a reason for it, right? Right.

Usually, the interviewer is trying to gauge what you’re like. Your answer gives them glimpses into your work ethic, priorities, preferences, and motivations. It provides them with clues about your values, as well as specific key traits.

Looking for something a little clearer?

Okay, think of it this way: Imagine you are trying to land a position on a sales team. If you said success is exceeding your sales quotas, the hiring manager might view you as independent. But, if you stated that success is ensuring team goals are met, you’ll seem more collaborative. Neither of those is wrong; they just give the hiring manager different pictures of what you’d be like if you landed the position.

Once you answer, the hiring manager can determine how well you’d fit into the team and the company’s culture. Essentially, if your definition of success aligns with the organization’s, team’s, or manager’s, you might be a better fit.

Common Mistakes When Answering This Question

Alright, one more thing before we talk about how to answer “how do you define success?” While knowing what to say is important, it’s equally critical to know what you shouldn’t say.

Why? Because, during an interview, a single misstep can potentially cost you an opportunity.

First, you need to discuss your definition of success. Not the dictionary’s, not your last boss’s, not some legend of entrepreneurship’s… just yours. You have to get a bit personal, so resist the urge to use someone else’s perspective in place of your own.

Next, avoid talking solely about success outside of work. While getting to the top of the Fortnite leaderboard might be part of your definition of success, that shouldn’t be the focus of your answer. You’re in an interview, so the context needs to be professional.

MIKE'S TIP: Are we saying that you should never talk about anything that isn’t part of your professional life? No, not necessarily. If you’ve developed a rapport with the hiring manager, then you might be able to add a splash of personal detail in, but only if you proceed carefully. For example, if the majority of your answer is professional, and then you quip briefly about your desire to reign supreme in Fortnite at the end, that could be okay… humorous even. Just make sure the tone of the interview indicates you have that kind of space. If you aren’t sure, then keep it completely pro-focused.

Finally, don’t try to sell yourself as the perfect example of your version of success. There has to be room for improvement. If you act like you’ve already peaked, the hiring manager won’t be impressed. Instead, they’re going to worry that you won’t listen to feedback or strive to do better, and that won’t work in your favor.

Tips for Answering This Question

1. Define, Then Show

When you are defining success, you don’t actually want to spend all of your time focused on explaining your definition. Instead, you want to tap on it briefly and then pivot, shifting your response to an achievement that showcases what you mean. It’s the “show, don’t tell” approach to tackling this question. Plus, it’s a great way to squeeze in another accolade, and you never want those to go to waste.

2. Quantify Your Details

During an interview, you know what speaks louder than words? Numbers, that’s what. By quantifying the details, you are giving your accomplishments weight. For example, what sounds better, “I led a big team” or “I led a 12-person team”? The second one, right?

Precision makes your answer powerful, and numbers give you precision. So, if the metrics are impressive, work them into your response.

3. Reference the Company’s Definition

Okay, before, we said you don’t want to use anyone else’s definition of success, and that’s true. But, if you can reference the company’s and then move forward with your own, that’s really the best approach.

Why? Because it shows you did your research. Plus, if your definition has aspects in common with the organization’s, you can highlight that.

Now, don’t change your definition to match; that’s a mistake. Just take the opportunity to find common ground, and make sure the hiring manager sees it, too.

“How Do You Define Success?” Example Answers

By now, you’re probably ready for some examples. That way, you can see what an excellent answer looks like, and use it as a framework.

In most cases, when you’re dealing with behavioral interview questions like this one, the STAR Method and the Tailoring Method is the way to go. Your answer will be thorough and compelling, both of which work in your favor.

If you want to see how to put those techniques into action, here are some sample responses.

1. Entry-Level Jobs

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“I view success as a journey, not a destination. At this early stage in my career, every milestone, big and small, moves me forward, allowing me to develop stronger skills and enhance my performance. In my last position, I frequently volunteered for new projects and embraced every opportunity to learn. Along the way, I improved my skillset, ultimately allowing me to exceed my sales goals by 25 percent. Each time I grew professionally, I didn’t just help the company reach new heights; I also felt successful, and it’s a feeling I enjoy re-earning whenever the chance arises.”

2. Supervisory Positions

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“As a manager, I define success not just by my performance but also by the achievements of my team. In my last position, I had the opportunity to coach employees, giving them critical guidance that boosted productivity and profitability. Through efficiency improvements, we were able to reduce project costs by 15 percent while never missing a single deadline and exceeding all outcome quality standards. It was one of my proudest accomplishments, and one I look forward to replicating with my new employer.”

3. Upper Management Roles

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“As a leader, I define success in two ways. First, helping the company achieve its larger goals, allowing for the creation of bolder ones, is success, in my eyes. Second, enhancing employee engagement and spurring their commitment to greater growth also qualifies. In my last role, I was able to implement culture improvements that dramatically impacted the workplace, boosting productivity by 10 percent. That allowed us to move forward toward a brighter future, one I was proud to be a part of.”

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, how do you define success is a challenging question. But, by using the tips above, you can make sure you’re ready to nail it as your next interview.

Good luck!

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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.