success-or-significanceWhen attending any conference we hear many thoughts, some good, some great and some that we wouldn’t give a second thought. Last week I was at a conference and though it is an oversimplification, that was exactly my experience. Of the many thoughts shared with us, one distinctly caught my attention and will continue to serve as my primary take-away from the two days we spent together. Though it wasn’t an original thought (most of the best ideas are not), when giving consideration to the audience it especially resonated with me. One of our Admirals simply challenged a group of Commanding Officers by congratulating us on our success and challenging us to be significant.

The difference between being successful and significant is not subtle. These officers were successful in that we have achieved rank and were specifically chosen to be Commanding Officers, the greatest honor in our Navy. The point was that the bar for success is relative and isn’t always high, while the measure for significance is not on a sliding scale. A very junior Sailor may not yet be deemed a success by traditional measure, but can quickly become the most significant contributor to the team. Conversely, a senior officer may be considered successful by his collar device and positional authority, yet be an insignificant member of the team.

Sad truth is that our respective Command Tour will be deemed successful as long as we are not fired. We will enjoy a nice ceremony that will acknowledge the transfer of authority, accountability and responsibility to our relief and we will have a medal pinned to our chest, as others congratulate us “on a successful command tour.” To the Admiral’s point, I don’t care to be successful, as success by this standard has largely become mediocrity powered by sometimes questionable motivation. Instead, I continue to be a proud member of a team focused on being significant. A team who measures significance by creating unique value for the customers, by building meaningful relationships within and beyond OUR command, by having no choice but to repeatedly say “You’re welcome” to the many individuals who appreciate our extra efforts, and by ensuring everything in our wake is better than it was before we involved ourselves.

The truth is people who are focused on success are often times doing things for themselves, while people who make being significant the objective are focused on bettering the lives of others. Big houses, fancy cars, a corner office and shiny new collar devices are things that are important to people who are driven by success. Incoming thank you notes, preserved integrity, strong personal relationships, and knowing one has done his absolute best is what sustains those of us focused on being significant.

Successful people love the status quo; Significant people can’t alter the order of things fast enough.

I hadn’t previously given much thought to these two words that too many of us use as synonyms, but can now confidently state…

Success without significance is hollow, significance without regard to success is admirable, and success through the pursuit of making significant contributions is the only success worth having.