As a fourteen year old, I remember sitting in my dad’s car anxiously picking my cuticles in anticipation of telling him I didn’t want to try out for basketball. I wanted to pursue ballet more seriously and couldn’t make the time commitment to both. I was reluctant to break the news to him because he had been my coach since biddy ball and we bonded over playing sports together. Since my dad had no vested interest in ballet, I was afraid he would be disappointed. I was even more afraid that by giving up a pastime we shared, he would think the time we had spent together wasn’t meaningful to me, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. When I finally brought it up, he was unconditionally supportive of me finding my own passion rather than blindly adopting his. I remember him saying something along the lines of, “Of course you should do what you enjoy! Basketball, ballet, whatever– you can do anything you want!” He then continued, “You could stand on the porch and spit into the yard for all I care…but you better be able to spit farther than the rest of the kids in the neighborhood.” That message stuck with me.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have a mother and father who encouraged me to explore my interests, no matter how eccentric. Despite the fact that they both held demanding full-time careers, my parents always made it their priority to chauffeur me from one activity to the next and they rarely missed a game or recital. They gave me the freedom to express myself creatively and trusted my judgement to find meaningful ways to spend my time. They had faith in my work ethic and believed in my potential to achieve anything I set my sights on. The thing was, I exhausted myself trying to be the best at it all. I put so much pressure on myself to do right by my loving parents, I could’ve pinched a lump of coal into a diamond with my ass crack. Even though I generally had no problem meeting their expectations, or anyone else’s expectations for that matter, I felt the ubiquitous suspicion that I was never working hard enough, always disappointing someone, or failing to meet my own expectations.
Needless to say, my “second place is first loser” mindset did not bring me closer to feeling successful, regardless of how much I was achieving or who approved of my achievements. Even when I vowed that trying my best would be a healthier, more reasonable expectation to set than being the best, it still often left me unsatisfied. The barometer I used to measure success needed to be calibrated.
One thought process that didn’t serve me was that I sometimes measured success using outcomes outside of my control. For example, I’ve always had the desire to be well liked. While my behavior is within my control and I can predict how others would like me to behave, ultimately I cannot control people’s reactions and their consequential feelings about me. When I wanted to be liked in high school, I acted agreeably, gave lots of compliments, and I could read most situations accurately to identify what to say to make my friends feel supported. It worked pretty well! By those measures, I should have felt successful. So why was my self-esteem still low? And despite having friends, why did I feel so lonely? In hindsight, I think it was because the process I followed to get the outcome I desired made me feel like a phony bologna. Perhaps I would have been better off if I didn’t measure success by how much other people liked me, but by whether I could make true friends with whom I authentically “belonged” rather than simply knew what to say to “fit in.”
Furthermore, I think defining success has been a confusing task in the past because I haven’t explicitly outlined what I value. Values determine the way we measure our worth and the worth of others. For example, I admit that sometimes I’m guilty of getting swept away by the prospect of gaining status and money. I’ve always admired stories about innovators and entrepreneurs who started from the bottom, overcame adversity, and had the tenacity to work toward becoming CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. I still applaud those people, but now I recognize that their status and money are simply means to an end, and not the end to value in itself. By simply valuing others’ status and money, I ran the risk of following a crappy process to get more of it for myself. Now, I deserve some credit; I trust myself and have too much integrity to ever do something as awful as lie, cheat, steal, or treat someone poorly to gain status or money. That said, the process I may have chosen to follow would’ve probably induced a great deal of anxiety and insecurity as I worked toward an empty goal that I ultimately would have never quite felt like I achieved. Instead of valuing status or money as the end gain, now I value affecting positive change, regardless of the prestige of my title, and all the priceless life experiences I’ve afforded with the money, time, and effort I’ve invested. A general rule of thumb is that positive values stem from actions and behaviors within our control that lead to enrichment of ourselves and betterment of society.
These days when I define my success, I ask myself a few questions. First, do I value the process rather than the result? Next, am I responsible for my success, or am I relying on something external? Lastly, if I don’t enjoy the process, do I really care about the result? If I can answer all of those questions favorably, I consider it a success.