11 Celebrities Who Perfectly Sum Up What "Success" Really Means


What does success look like?

In the case of 20-somethings, the so-called millennials, it usually hinges on professional achievements. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we average about 11 different jobs from ages 18 to 48, and the hours we spend at each job are growing exponentially thanks to our constant digital connections. But all that professional churning doesn't necessarily leave us feeling so accomplished. So what does that elusive "success" really look like?

Surveys have found that success is not marked by age and achievements but more often by learning, strong family ties and a good set of friends. As David Brooks wrote in his recent New York Times op-ed "The Moral Bucket List," "It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues ... the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful." The balance between the two is where actual success is found.

Here are 11 celebrities with the perfect explanations for what that kind of balanced success really looks like.

1. Amy Poehler: "Your career won't take care of you."


In Poehler's 2014 book Yes Please, she delivers solid advice: Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Poehler is advising against putting all of our eggs in one basket and maintaining that key work-life balance. That way, if our careers take a turn, we can always "go sleep with somebody else."

2. Justin Timberlake: "I felt I had to achieve, achieve, achieve."


In a 2011 Playboy interview, Timberlake said the driving force behind his solo albums (and the millions of copies sold) was this abstract pressure that he had to eventually shake off. Sometimes, on our path to success, in hopes of earning everyone else's respect and praise, we can forget our own goals.

3. Chris Rock: "When you got a career, time just flies by."


In his 2008 HBO comedy special Kill the Messenger, Rock makes the distinction between a job and a career — when you care enough about something, it will no longer feel like you're just putting in the hours for a check.

4. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Don't confuse having a career with having a life." 


In the 1998 convocation address at Howard University, Clinton reminds us of the power of community and giving back. Not every defining success of our lives will directly relate to our careers.

5. Louis C.K.: "I try to find something else that I don't know how to do yet."


In an as-told-to with the Hollywood Reporter this month, the famed comedian, who "didn't start doing really well" until he was 42, explained why the windfall after each great achievement doesn't last as long as we expected. If anything, each new achievement provides the motivation and inspiration for our next goal.

6. Denzel Washington: "It's about who you've lifted up."


In his 2006 book collection, A Hand to Guide Me, Washington said that sometimes success isn't about  accomplishments but how you can apply them to benefit others. It's a sentiment often forgot in talks of careers and salaries, but it's a rewarding perspective that may ultimately have more pay-off.

7. Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "I question things to stay present."


In a world where self-doubt can be perceived as weakness, in this 2013 profile for Men's Health, Gordon-Levitt makes the point for constant gut-checks about whether you're still on the right path. When it comes to seeking professional achievements, sometimes the most clearly laid route isn't the right one for us — and that's OK.

8. Lady Gaga: "Your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you."


While Poehler suggests prioritizing personal relationships over a career, Lady Gaga told Cosmopolitan in 2010 that her focus was not to chase down love first and foremost but to follow her ambitions. Neither one is wrong — it's about embracing what will bring the most fulfillment. That might be lifelong career, or maybe not. Perhaps it's both. 

9. Maya Angelou: "A 'living' is not the same thing as 'making a life.'"


If Angelou has advice about success, it's that the same thing that pays you won't always make you feel rich inside, as she noted on her site. Just ask any banker who's missing their family while working in the office at 1 a.m.

10. Kelly Cutrone: "You're not what you do."


At one point, Cutrone started silencing her mind. The first step to distancing yourself from work is realizing that it alone cannot define you, as she wrote in her 2010 book If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You

11. Taylor Swift: "I hope my life won't match anyone else's life trajectory."


It's not unwise to use inspiring role models to help chart our own paths. But when we rely entirely on others' success to measure our own, we can forget that one person's definition of success doesn't have to be ours. As Swift told Time in 2014, everyone's life trajectory is their own, to be measured by no one else but them.