Why one university is trying to get Merriam-Webster to change its definition of 'success'

According to Merriam-Webster, success is “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.”

However, a 2014 survey from Herndon, Virginia-based Strayer University found that the dictionary’s definition may be a bit outdated and in need of a revision.

The survey, which was conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Strayer, found that a whopping 90% of the 2,011 Americans ages 18 and up who participated believed that success is more about happiness than power, possessions, or prestige.

In total, 67% said they associate success with achieving personal goals; 66% defined success as having “good relationships with friends and family”; and 60% said it’s about “loving what you do for a living.”

Only one in five respondents cited monetary wealth.

When the study findings were released in October 2014, Business Insider spoke with Dr. Michael Plater, then-president of Strayer University, who said: “This indicates a clear change in the way Americans are thinking about their personal journey. It’s no longer about the car or the house. Instead, people are focused on leading a fulfilling life, whether that means finding a better career, achieving personal goals, or spending more time with their families.”

Given the shift, which Plater attributed to economic, social, and cultural changes in the US, Strayer is now attempting to officially revise Merriam-Webster’s definition of success with the support of business executives, athletes, and social influencers through an initiative called “Readdress Success.”

The goal is to expand the dictionary’s definition to: “Happiness derived from good relationships and the attainment of personal goals.

A spokesperson for Merriam-Webster told Business Insider that they “appreciate Strayer University’s interest in our definition of ‘success.'”

“Today’s official definition of success doesn’t reflect the reality of how Americans think about, discuss and ultimately pursue success,” said Brian W. Jones, president of Strayer University, in a press release.

“If we take it literally, it would mean people who love their jobs, have happy families, or help their communities aren’t successful. This is a dangerous notion as it can lead people to believe they are unsuccessful because they haven’t amassed a certain amount of wealth or fame. Our belief is that there are many definitions of and paths to success and that all journeys to success are unique and should be celebrated. We believe the official definition of success should reflect that,” he said.

Brian Jones Courtesy of Strayer UniversityBrian W. Jones, president of Strayer University.

Strayer has launched a petition through Change.org that aims to “draw as much attention from Merriam-Webster to the initiative as possible,” and has promised to donate $US0.50 for every signature collected to Dress for Success, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes “the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and career development tools to help them thrive in work and life,” according to its site.

Karl McDonnell, CEO of Strayer Education, Inc., said in a press release that Strayer’s intention of conducting the “Success Project Survey” last year was “never to change the definition of success, but rather to inspire people to turn inward and think about what success means to them personally.

“But the more we talk with our working adult students and become a part of their lives, and the more we delve into this ongoing movement, we have discovered that a critical and real change needs to happen in the way we talk about success. Certainly Americans are feeling it and thinking about it in these broadened ways and Strayer University … wants to be part of that dialogue,” he concluded.

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