With graduation season upon us, I was recently asked for some advice for recent grads. What would I like to tell them about life, success, or relationships? I found this hysterical because, most days, I don’t feel like the best example of “what to do with your life.” I mean, I work in my PJ’s for crying out loud and have been known to go whole days without human contact. I’m not even a bestselling author. What could I possibly tell people?
Still, the request was out there, so I did my best.
At first I couldn’t come up with squat. But the more I thought about it, I realized I do have one pearl of wisdom to share, and here it is:
Find your own definition of success and then be proud to live by that definition.
When we start out in life, we’re guided by other people’s definitions of success. Our parents want us to get good grades, or maybe go to a good college. Maybe they want us to follow in the family business, or get a certain job. Society only considers us successful when we’ve made a ton of money, live in a big house, and drive a fancy car. Even better if you run your own business or invent some widget or app that makes you a mint. In short, we need the approval of others and we’re conditioned, like trained seals, to perform and look to others for evidence that “we done good.”
But when you get out into the world, you’ll likely realize that either those definitions are outdated (good grades are no longer a barometer for success when you’re out of school), or just not for you. Performing is exhausting and waiting for others to tell you you’re doing okay is silly.
And that’s when the existential crisis kicks in. If making money isn’t important to me, how do I fit in? What if I don’t want to work in the family business, or follow the career path everyone expects me to? Is there a place for me in the world if I don’t want a big house, or if I don’t want a challenging career? I’ve always gotten good grades and been valedictorian, but now that school is over, who am I?
I’d say my crisis lasted the better part of eighteen years. I thought I had to have a successful (stressful) career, so I tried a few jobs, thinking that eventually I’d find my ability to “Lean In.” I never did. Corporate life was the most soul-destroying thing I’d ever encountered. Even within “good” companies, I was miserable. I am not, and never will be, adapted to cubicle life and office politics.
But if I wasn’t going to have a traditional career, what was I going to do? I watched as my peers got promotions, awards, and recognition. Ever nicer houses and cars followed. More kids. They were climbing those ladders and slotting into society’s definition of “success” just fine. And I… wasn’t.
And yet, I wasn’t unhappy. This was confusing. If I wasn’t living up to any standard definition of success set forth by society or my upbringing, shouldn’t I have been miserable? Shouldn’t I have felt like something was missing?
By this time I’d switched to freelancing. I worked on pieces that interested me, for clients I enjoyed. It was work and a meaningful job, but not the 9 to 5 grind. It was… dare I say it? Fun. Bonus: Because I wasn’t commuting and wasting time in endless meetings, I ended up with more spare time than I’d ever had. I traveled some, read a ton, and engaged in a lot of hobbies. I wrote my novels because I loved the books and enjoyed the work. Becoming a bestselling author might be nice, I think, but my little bit of publishing success is enough for now.
And I realized that I am never going to be rich, never going to achieve an executive title (except when I refer to myself as President Supreme of My Own Writing Empire), and never have most of the standard markers of “success.” But yet I am happy. Very happy. I have what matters to me.
The moment I realized and accepted that, the existential crisis ended. Somehow, without any conscious plan, I’d arrived at a definition of success that was my own. It wasn’t based on anyone else’s expectations. Success, to me, is doing work I enjoy, for/with people I like, in a comfortable environment, and with enough time left over to pursue things that interest and engage me.
It also includes having stable relationships, even if I don’t care to know everyone under the sun. I don’t have to have a zillion friends. A few are enough.
Notice there’s nothing in there about money, cars, houses, hobnobbing with the “right people,” or any other superficial foolishness. There’s nothing in my definition that requires a certain title, award, or approval from others. And that’s a good thing, because I know I’m never going to get those things.
For a while, I felt a bit ashamed of myself. Wasn’t it wrong to go against the norm? Was I wasting my potential not chasing the brass ring? So I tried to hide my happiness, to downplay my contentment. Which was one of the stupidest things ever, but live and learn.
But you know what? Life is short and I no longer give a crap. I have my definition of success and I live by it. I may not have awards and titles, but you know what I do have? Peace. Finally. After too many wasted years, I have arrived at peace. And it’s a wonderful place to be.
So my advice to new grads (and anyone else) is to figure out your own definition of success. Turn off all the “shoulds” and “ought to’s” from the outside world and listen to your own heart. What do you want out of life? What will make you happy? Do you need fancy titles and things, or are there other things you value more? (And there’s nothing wrong with wanting money, titles, or other traditional markers of success. It didn’t work for me, but it does for a lot of people, so no judgment if that’s what you want.) How will you know when you’ve “arrived?”
Once you figure it out, be proud to live by your definition. Don’t feel bad because you are happy, and don’t constantly wonder if your life is somehow diminished. Do the things that fit your definition of success and do them proudly. So what if society never showers you with accolades for achieving its definition of success? If you are at peace with your choices, then that’s what matters. I can guarantee that on your deathbed, you’re going to want that peace, not regret because you spent your life chasing someone else’s definition of success.
(Photo courtesy of mohamed_hassan)