When I was younger I thought success was an onward and upward journey mapped out by culturally embedded markers: high-school, post secondary education, a career, love and marriage followed by children. If I followed this map, I would know that I had arrived. Reality hit hard when I missed some of these predetermined markers by my late twenties. I felt unaccomplished because of the value I had placed on this familiar timeline. It was during this time in my life I began to question the notion of success and reexamined the many constructs I had built around it.
The pursuit of success is personal: it fuels our self-esteem and sense of purpose. Our notion of success is very much driven by culture. Those who have ‘arrived’ seem to have the good looks, education, wealth, relational/familial status, are morally/spiritually elite and have influence over others. Although none of these markers of success are evil, I have discovered that the pursuit of them has left me feeling unfulfilled. I have education, yet in the company of certain people my field of study is limited. I have relationship status, yet in the company of a group of moms I may feel like my input is less welcomed. Success as determined by these markers leaves us playing a sad game of who has ‘it’ and who doesn’t. According to our judgements there will always be someone less successful than us and someone more successful. Someone with a larger home and someone with a smaller one. A gorgeous new condo in the city may trump an old farmhouse with acres of land (or vice versa). Success as an external affair is trying to aim at an ever-moving target.
By midlife I found myself exhausted trying to achieve the seemingly unattainable. Actually, to be honest, it was when I felt like I had nothing left to ‘show off.’ I remember taking a sobering look in the mirror. An unrecognizable ‘me’ reflected back – a ‘me’ that needed to understand how much of my thoughts were influenced by the approval of others. Success, for me, was locating ‘approval’ and aiming at that target. Needless to say, the target was constantly changing depending on the audience and their definition of success.
In order to aim at a sure target – one that could genuinely strengthen my sense of self and purpose – I had to pull back from ‘prove yourself’ communities. Their unhealthy emphasis on achievement fuelled my need for approval. Although it was lonely at first, I became more comfortable in my own skin and began asking myself what was most important to me. This involved much soul-searching and revealing my vulnerabilities to a few trusted individuals. I was surprised by their empathy, connection with my journey, and willingness to be my courage when I felt mine was lost. Instead of aiming at approval, I began aiming at knowing myself – understanding my needs and limitations. As my sense of self and purpose was strengthened, I learned how to be in the presence of someone who may appear to have more of ‘it’ without feeling less-than. Redefining success has become a practice of revisiting the past with new insight, remaining curious and open to learning and developing new habits.
When success is a game of mapped-out cultural markers and moving targets, the odds of fulfillment are fleeting. I’m rediscovering success as a rich inward exploration of redefining what brings the greatest sense of self and purpose.
Here’s to the journey!