Success, to me, is almost too vague of a word to have any real definitive meaning or value without having any clear metrics in place for measuring it. Just a few days ago I was enjoying dinner with a forest ecologist and a sociologist (no, this is not the set-up for a joke). The conversation quickly turned into a heated debate on what it means for a tree to be successful. The sociologist, having previously owned an apple orchard, saw success as being measured solely in fruit production. The forest ecologist saw success as being the amount of physical biomass accumulated by the tree that will in turn benefit other species by way of increased foraging opportunities, shade, habitat, decay, etc… Eventually, they both agreed to disagree and we were back to enjoying a peaceful meal. However, my point is that we all have different metrics, or ways of measuring success, whether it be for trees or ourselves or probably anything for that matter.
Today’s society would tell us that there are a two overarching metrics for success: monetary wealth and fame. The second tier of success being higher education, job status, marriage, number of children, an enormous home you can’t afford and perhaps mini-van ownership. For me, measuring my life’s contributions in terms of any of these things would be unjustly undervaluing everything I stand for. I often tell people that I’m the most successful unsuccessful person they will ever meet. It‘s a funny statement and I say it with humor but it‘s terribly true. On paper, I’m swimming in collegiate degrees, state licenses, advanced study certifications and at the age of 37, I‘ve already amassed a lifetimes worth of experience in a wide-variety of fields. (Funny story: my master’s advisor accepted me as his student, not because of my grades, but because my resume was so interesting that he had to meet me.) In my life, I’ve come to numerous crossroads (as I’m sure you have too), where I had to decide between the decent paying, yet soul-sucking, 9 to 5 job and the creative, yet underpaying, job. My first real jobs were the absolute soul-sucking worst but they provided me with a nice apartment, financial security, spending money, a Jeep, a Mercedes, a boat, a motorcycle, a plethora of exotic and domestic animals, and for reasons I don’t even understand to this day, a dune buggy. In my early twenties, I was well on my way to achieving “real success.” But very quickly, misery seeped in. There was a this nagging voice in my head that just got louder and louder with each soul-sucking day, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was being completely untrue to the person I always wanted to be. That adorable little girl with the peanut butter and jelly smeared all over her face, the one who used to enjoy getting dirty and catching critters, the one with the invisible monster for a best friend would never let society dictate her life’s meaning. Needless to say, life became a hard pill to swallow and eventually I was forced to re-examine my values and my definition of success. In one seemingly split second, I left my job, my boyfriend (coincidentally, on the same day he was going to propose), and all the toys behind and started over. I don’t look back on those years with regret because they forced me to be brutally honest with myself. The truth is that I will be in debt for the rest of my life, I will always want to live in a camper instead of a mansion, I will more than likely remain an unmarried spinster surrounded by too many dogs and cats, I will probably never have a gaggle of little rug-rats running around, and I will never aspire to fortune and fame. Truthfully, some of that has been a struggle for me to make peace with and some has been all too easy to let go of. Nevertheless, the peace has been made. This is me determining my own metric and being okay with not living up to society’s standards. Instead, my life is measured by the number of people, places and things I’ve made better. That’s it–plain and simple. If I’ve made someone smile while reading this or if my words inspire someone to improve their own situation, then my goal has been reached for the day. A mental check mark goes in my success column for the day. And now whenever I’m at a crossroads, I always veer away from the soul-sucking opportunities that I know will compromise my values and move towards the ones that offer me the most personal growth, discomfort, and challenge. The newfangled catchphrase sweeping the nation is that you have to “lean into the discomfort” and for once, I think the self-help gurus have got it right. It’s the path of most resistance both personally and financially, but I believe it to be the most fulfilling.
There are many ways to think of success. Are you the artist who dies penniless and relatively unknown but your life’s work is worshiped by all for centuries to come? Are you the business owner who works tirelessly to increase your bottom line, gain financial security, and die having amassed as many toys as possible? Are you the tree, whose limitless contributions remain the hot point of debate around the dinner table? There comes a time when we all should be honest with ourselves and be clear about our own values, intentions, and vision of what success looks like for us as individuals. Word to the wise, whatever you do, don‘t compare or adopt someone else’s metric. This is as individual of a choice as you can get–even more individual than how you like your eggs or if you prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles or if chunky peanut butter is waaay tastier than the smooth variety. You will never be truly happy until you find your own system of measure.