Listening to Myself

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Definition of Success (or, the joys of surveys)

I read this bit in the "Value Driven" column in the 1/10/05 issue of Fortune Magazine. The columnist, Geoffrey Colvin, is talking about consumer debt levels, and offers this as a vivid example of the consumer debt situation.

The question asked respondents [in a Zogby poll over the summer] "what it means to be well-off or successful". You might have expected answers about expensive cars or multiple homes or luxurious retirements. But the top answer by a mile -- cited more than twice as often as anything else -- was far more modest: "eliminate credit card debt." That's financial success? The term used to mean having enough assets to live on. Now it just means getting out of the hole.

So, a pretty damning quote, I thought, but I also wondered what the survey question was really asking. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to find the quote and I found that it isn't nearly as clear-cut as the columnist makes it.

Here's the page with the survey questions and results (scroll about 2/3 the way down the page for this particular question) and I think that given how the question was asked, the columnist is seeing what he wants to see from the survey results.

Here's the way the survey phrased the instructions for this section:

Following are some ways that people define what it means to be well off or successful. As I read each, please tell me if fulfilling it is important in your definition of being well off or successful -- very important, somewhat important, or not important.

And then, as part of a list of 10 different options, the survey respondents answer the question that Colvin singled out for his column. I think that given these instructions, this answer is not nearly as disconserting as Colvin makes it out to be. I think that most people would agree that in order to be successful part of the definition is to not be in debt. They aren't saying that being out of debt is the main definition or the most important part of defining success, rather I think the results are saying that in order to be well-off or successful you shouldn't have a lot of debt -- which seems quite self-evident, hence the high survey results for that option. I don't think there is any redefinition of what it means to be well off or successful going on here at all.

Well, enough on this particular little thought exercise. I like looking into things like this occasionally -- I think it is a great way to sharpen the saw. (Yes, I did just finish listening to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - which I highly recommend)


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