We have become just a little bit obsessed with attaining success. Shows like “Shark Tank” and “The Bachelor” attempt to create everything from successful businesses to successful love lives. Last night I watched Sheryl Sandberg share her thoughts on how women can attain business success with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. And the media and commentators have gone crazy debating whether women (or men) can or can’t “have it all.”
But what, really, is success?
Is success a corner office, a lucrative career, and a house that the neighbors envy? Does success come in the form of love, marriage, and 2.3 children? Is success popularity, sex appeal, and the admiration of peers? Or is success something different, something more obscure?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines success as “a favorable or desired outcome,” which is often times created based on external measurements. We look to external examples of success – neighbors, friends, colleagues, mentors, celebrities, business tycoons, parents, family members, even strangers on the street – to tell us what a favorable or desired outcome would be. As a writer, I look to Anne Lamott and Glennon Melton (did you know that her blog reaches 70,000 viewers each day?!?!) as measures of success. As a parent, I look to the mom who managed to stop yelling for a year as an example of parenting success. As a woman, I look to the girl next to me at the gym running 8 minute miles or the celebrities who grace the pages of my US Weekly magazine wearing itsy-bitsy bikinis and flaunting flat abs, clear skin, and well-coifed hair. As a wife, I look to the easy-going, sexy, supportive partner who dotes on her husband with nary an objection or complaint. As an introvert-but-wanna-be-extrovert, I look to the popular queen bees chatting with their troop of minions outside the playground each day. All of these people are the epitome of favorable outcomes.
And it would be hard enough to measure success against these external models in their specific areas of “expertise” alone, but to make matters worse, I mentally combine each of these images of success to create a composite idealized persona – a beautiful, physically fit, best-selling author who never yells at her kids, has tons of friends, and never snaps at her husband.
In comparison to this fictional modern day Barbie, I am undoubtedly a fumbling failure. My blog has a mere 100 followers and, despite a few “almosts” and close calls, I still haven’t secured a publisher for my book. I can’t make it more than a couple of days without yelling at my kids, much less a whole year. I can barely run a couple miles at a modest pace, I have a perpetual 3-month belly bump (no, I am not pregnant), laugh lines outline the occasional acne, my hair is usually in a ponytail or under a hat to conceal the fact that I’ve gone a few days without washing it, and as much as I am wildly in love with my husband, I am shamefully outspoken and dramatic, often misplacing my stress and frustrations on him.
Given the unattainability of success as measured by this composite ideal, many suggest a more personal standard of success. As Maya Angelou says, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
While this definition does seem more relaxed than the unattainable success of a fictional flawless person, it is still a little tricky. You see, although I like myself most days, like what I do most days, and like how I do it most days, there are plenty of times when, quite frankly, I don’t find myself all that likeable, and I don’t like what I do nor how I do it. My freelance work consists of writing a fair amount of web materials for law firms and, while I continue to find “the law” fascinating, writing about slip and fall accidents can get to be a bit monotonous at times and I don’t always like it. As a parent, I certainly don’t like wiping snotty noses, supervising homework, or cleaning crayon off the ceiling (as I did this morning), nor do I always like how I parent (did I mention the yelling?). And let’s be honest, days filled with excessive snot wiping and yelling can make it pretty difficult to like oneself.
Certainly, there is value in looking to external examples of success as inspirational mentors and personal motivators, paradigms of those characteristics and accomplishments that matter to us, propelling us to do better and be better, just like there is value in eliminating the extrinsic measures of success – a big house, fancy cars, popularity, a growing bank account, a corner office, and rock hard abs – in favor of intrinsic measures of success – personal satisfaction, inner peace, purposeful existence, solid relationships, an optimistic outlook, and a resilient character.
But all of these measures –intrinsic and extrinsic alike – are ever-changing, undefinable or fleeting. So if we measure success by these standards, by the attainment of “favorable or desired outcomes,” success will forever be slipping through our fingers.
Perhaps the measures of success aren’t the problem; it’s our definition of success that is the problem. Success isn’t so much the attainment of a “desired outcome or result,” as Merriam-Webster’s dictionary tells us, just like success does not come from “having it all” (a loaded and lethal phrase, in and of itself).
Success is not a victory or result, but a perpetual state of mind. Success is learning from external paradigms of accomplishment while listening to a compassionate inner voice. Success is the endless pursuit of personal betterment balanced with a comfortable appreciation of the status quo. Success is the aspiration to be the best me I can be while praising myself for seemingly minor victories. Success is ambitious motivation quieted by generosity of spirit and radical empathy.
By those definitions, success is something that we can live every day, not just strive to attain.
I will still hope and pray that one day I will have thousands of blog followers and a published book under my belt. But in the mean time I will applaud myself for getting that damn crayon off the ceiling without yelling at my kids – an undoubted success by any definition.
How do you define or measure success?
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