May 9, 2018

Why I'm Not Trying to be Successful Anymore

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Why I'm not trying to be successful anymore. A personal reflection on how I've reprioritized my life and set a new metric for happiness. #success #happiness #selfworth

I remember visiting a friend at her parent's home while I was in college. They had a stunning house by any measure, and we often would gather there in large groups because there was plenty of room to comfortably accommodate a lot of people. The house itself was impeccably decorated and was large and impressive in scale. It was safely nestled behind secure gates, and it sat on a recognizable, world-class golf course. It was easy to see my friend's parents had been financially successful and their home was a reflection of a lifetime worth of hard work and sacrifice. I also need to say that in my experience, they were some of the most generous, kind-hearted, and down-to-earth people I'd ever met and their daughter, my friend, clearly reflected those same ideals in her own life.

During my senior year in college, I spent quite a bit of time at their house, but there was one thing which always caught my eye. I associated that thing with success, and for years I remember thinking, "if only I had that particular item in my house someday, it would mean that I too would be considered successful." You might be surprised and curious to know what the thing was. It was small, and for many inconsequential, but to me, it carried great significance. It was the Williams-Sonoma soap and lotion caddy. Just two cute products with classy packaging sitting in small wire basket next to their kitchen faucet. To me, I equated this little piece of decor to mean its keeper had been successful in life. It seems silly I know, but at the time it was an extravagance I couldn't afford, and therefore, I thought, if only I too had a kitchen soap and lotion caddy one day, I would be able to look at my life's work with satisfaction and personal approval.

Williams Sonoma Lemongrass Ginger Hand Soap and Lotion Kitchen Caddy

Add ten or more years, a marriage, some kids, and several jobs, and boy has my perspective on success changed. I've gone through many different phases; equating success to physical things, like the kitchen caddy, overcoming obstacles, like a move, or reaching a stage of life, like marriage or motherhood.

There have been times when success meant I had a certain amount in my bank account or the ability to buy a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant without sacrificing and preparing for weeks in advance. Before college, I measured success by the number of Gelly Roll colored pens in my pencil pouch or the new pair of jeans I wore in my school picture. I might have put a significant amount of importance on how many miles I could run in less than 20 minutes or the marks I received on a report card. Later on, it was all about how many emails and client calls I could weed through before conquering rush hour and preparing a home-cooked dinner for my family. And more recently, I counted the number of loads of laundry I could fold while functioning on the fewest hours of sleep.

Society was telling me to work for success. To strive to parent successfully, to be successful at the office through a coordinated series of promotions, to be financially successful, and to have a successful marriage. I came to believe success was the ultimate achievement. And striving to achieve those successes left me exhausted, and not just from the lack of sleep which is customary with early motherhood.

I came to a turning point, and I needed to take a step back and look at the areas in my life where I placed value and self-worth.

After some reflection, I made some valuable observations:

  1. Measuring success by Gelly Rolls is lightyears different than laundry loads. How was I supposed to achieve success if the definition is ever-changing?
  2. Success isn't obtainable in the long-term, and it shouldn't be tied to my self-worth.
  3. I need to stop using success as a metric for measuring happiness.
Let me explain further.

Achieving each step toward what I defined as success and summiting the temporary mountain proved to bring fleeting joy because, at some point, the goal or the measure of success changed and I needed to climb higher or come to terms with descending the cliff. I realized trying to achieve success is like aiming at a moving target. Even if you do hit the mark, it moves on to its next position to challenge you. The job is never done. The second I was close to my temporary definition of success, the foundation shook, and a new standard was established. It is impossible to achieve, and yet, I couldn't seem to stop chasing it.

Take the jeans as an example. If all the girls in your class are wearing a particular pair of jeans, it's natural to feel the pressure to fall in line with the trend. Once you obtain those jeans, however, your sights are set on the next bigger and better item. Gaining this level of success is essentially instant gratification. It will only sustain you for a short time before your sights are set on something else, and once again you are chasing the satisfaction of success. I was stuck in a rotating hamster wheel. I was working hard to catch the prize but going nowhere fast.

There is one distinction I want to make here; there is a difference between goals and success. Goals are motivating, they drive us to improve personally and professionally. Goals give us measurable results, and they are ever-changing. Success is a metric many equate to happiness, and it is abstract.

When I worked to be successful I was running an unwinnable race and my opponent was some superficial benchmark I set for myself. I learned I was exhausting myself for something, which in the long-term, is unattainable. Furthermore, I let these abstract benchmarks define my self-worth. I told myself I wasn't successful during the day if I was only able to answer half of the emails in my inbox. I told myself I was the opposite of successful; I was a failure. Had I worked my hardest? Yes, but my hardest wasn't good enough, and my self-esteem suffered because I had erected such rigid measurements which I could not obtain. I never equated success to the journey. So the lessons and positive attributions I should have garnered along the way to reaching my so-called successes were lost in my oversight and hyper-focus to achieve. It wasn't about what I did to get to the finish line; it was only about breaking through the tape. The end result was all that was important.

Mom and two boys at strawberry farm

So I stand at this crossroads which seems to defy everything I've been trained to embrace. I hear this little voice in my ear telling me to stop trying to be successful because it's distracting me from what's important. The idea of success is so abstract it leaves me chasing after a superficial and fleeting objective while I'm simultaneously placing too much of my self-worth in its allusive embrace. I will continue to set goals, continue to chase dreams, continue to better myself from the inside out, but I will no longer define myself by my so-called successes. I resolve not to measure my self-worth based on a bank account, a weight on the scale, a homecooked meal, a load of laundry, or a soap and lotion kitchen caddy.

What is the metric you use to define your happiness?

Be Blessed,
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