THE AMERICAN definition of success has tradition-

ally been the achievement of power and the amassing of money. For a brief period in the 1960s and early '70s, it appeared that American young people had begun looking at work in a different light -- as a way to meet individual needs while improving society and allowing time for a deeper commitment to family life. By the mid-'70s, however, a more self-centered attitude again prevailed, and it became common to state openly that one's career goal was to get as close to the top as possible, to "make it" at all costs.

Defining success solely in terms of personal and material power denies the importance of identity with family, community, and society. If the advice in all the books written in the last 30 years on "How to Gain Instant Success" were followed, there would be no one left to load the ships in the harbors, harvest the crops, put out fires, nurture the children, or do the thinking and governing that is necessary to keep a society growing and progressive.

But writers continue to respond to the perceived demands of the marketplace by producing an incredible number of books on how to be successful. The vast majority of them link success with power, money and control of others. Many of the authors go after an even bigger market by relating success in work with success in love -- as though these two spheres were identical.

Most of these books are slick and oversimplified, and pander to the desire for quick and easy "success" at "winning" the game of status and power at work. However, if the reader can get beyond the dreadful titles and covers (Power and Love, for example, or Work and Love: The Crucial Balance), a few do offer practical suggestions and raise provocative questions.

In Work and Love: The Crucial Balance (Harmony Books, paperback, $5.95), psychiatrist Jay B. Rohrlich states that success in business and love are motivated by different needs and achieved by very different methods. He defines work as the skillful organization, manipulation and control of the external and internal environments in order to achieve a desired goal efficiently and effectively. All work has as its basis the aggressive urge to change the present or enhance the future. The urge to love is the opposite in all respects: It is experienced through the senses, not the intellect, oriented to the present, not the future, and focused on pleasure, not the satisfaction of aggressive needs. Rohrlich presents ample evidence that people can lose in either work or love if they concentrate too much on one area. A balance between both sets of needs must be struck.

Work-addicts are creatures of aggressive instincts, unable to live in the present or to function without the excitement of work. Rohrlich depicts a number of workaholics in situations that are typical of the breed. Up to now, most of them have been men, but with more women working full-time at professional jobs, the phenomenon is also appearing among women. When someone who for years has concentrated most of his or her energy on work begins to realize that the desired level of success may be beyond reach, that person may experience a serious and disruptive midlife crisis. Those who have never struck the critical balance may find that the love they now need has died from neglect.

Rohrlich singles out motherhood as unique work. Without any hint of condescension, he points out that in spite of the work involved, being a wife and mother is basically a love role that does not demand mastery or control. However, he fails to point out that there are men in our society who could perform this role as well as women, perhaps gaining more satisfaction than they do from conventional work.

The book is a serious and thoughtful presentation of some of our present conflicts. It offers much to those who are concerned that they are overvaluing their jobs and neglecting their personal lives.

Power and Love: How to Work for Success and Still Care for Others, by Barbara Forisha-Kovack (Prentice-Hall, $11.95; paperback, $5.95) also deals with the balance between power in work and personal relationships. Forisha-Kovack paints quickly with a broad brush, and her theories are inadequately developed and substantiated, but they are nevertheless thought-provoking. Power and Love is primarily about the development of sex role definitions and the unfortunate effects that these roles have on adults in both work and love. The author describes how little boys learn early that they live in a world of power, not love, and that they will be rewarded more for wielding power than they will be for showing love. Girls, on the other hand, learn as children that there are winners and losers, vanquished and victors. As a result many females shy away from achievement, especially in such male-dominated areas of life as work. Most girls continue to strive for excellence until they reach adolescence when the need to be accepted sexually drives them to be less competitive.

This fairly clear division between men as power people and women as loving people can be destructive, particularly in the workplace, where men become dominating and women manipulative.

An important theme of the book is that women still function to a large extent as outsiders in the workplace, second-class citizens who are never taught the rules of the game. Those women who do learn the rules do so on their own, and frequently assume the male power model as the way to succeed. The author feels that women can contribute a new dimension to the work world by exercising genuine power, which consists of both task competence and interpersonal skill, and by tempering the drive for success with compassion, thus melding the two spheres of love and power.

Successfully Ever After, by Shirley Sloan Fader (McGraw-Hill, paperback, $6.95), is a handy guide to some of the more common but subtle means to success. Although written for women, it should be equally helpful to men -- who are not born with the instinctive knowledge of when to write a memo any more than women are. Men learn these techniques sooner than most women simply because they usually join the work force earlier, don't interrupt their careers, and receive guidance from informal mentors.

Fader is a contributing editor to Working Woman Magazine. Although she is superficial and even misleading in her discussions of inequities between men's and women's work, she does make a good case for the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and high performance as the real keys to success. She believes that a winner does not necessarily have to be highly competitive, and that many jobs do not require competition. What is essential is learning the skills needed to perform increasingly complex and high-level jobs. Competition may win someone a job but only the ability to perform will get the job done.

Two more primers for the work place are Nobody's Perfect (Stratford Press, $12.95) by Henrie Weisinger and Norman M. Lobsenz, and Rethinking: How to Succeed by Learning How to Think, by Daniel Cohen (M. Evans, $11.95). Nobody's Perfect is a simplified presentation of the benefits of learning how to give and receive constructive criticism, while Rethinking deals, in a clear and informative manner, with a number of mental processes. Included are sections on decision-making, memory improvement, proper and successful ways to argue, body language and the uses of statistics (both to confuse and inform). The best chapter in the book is the one on logic. With examples from everyday life Cohen demonstrates the principles of Aristotelian logic in easy-to-understand, usable form. Because modern schooling so seldom teaches structured thinking, the book fills a real gap.