“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” ~Maya Angelou
Color within the lines. Math, physics and chemistry—there’s absolutely no point in taking drama. A main meal of straight A’s and a side order of volunteer work. A four-year degree with a “safe” major from a reputable college. Then comes the corner cubicle career at a listed company. What about the four-bedroom house and the annual holidays abroad? We can’t possibly forget about those things
All through life, from infancy to adulthood, we are told what it means to be successful. We are given a textbook definition, based purely on societal constructs that have existed for far too long without critical questioning, and then expected to attain this success without any consideration given to individualism—a core characteristic of what it means to be human.
Not so long ago, I would have happily been the poster child for a successful young adult who was on a clear trajectory toward even more success.
I colored only in my coloring book in a demure manner, using colors that were realistic and often leaving some of the more obscure colors completely untouched, while my younger brother scribbled unhinged and feverishly on just about every reachable surface with absolutely all the colors in his crayon box.
When I got to high school, I swapped writing and performing in plays for physics and chemistry because I needed something more credible for my college applications. I was rewarded for this choice by being accepted into one of the most revered schools in the country, while some of my peers failed to even graduate from high school.
And so, I continued with this mindset into university where I spent countless all-nighters studying in lieu of socializing and well, to be quite honest, actually living my life.
I distinctly remember one night in particular when an old love interest called me up to say that he’d like nothing more than to pick me up and take me out just like he’d done dozens of times before.
I recall heartily laughing at his admission mostly because of that fact that he’d recently moved across the country. I also vividly recall his excitement as he explained that he was on a surprise trip back in the city. The excitement, however, was short-lived as I insisted on staying indoors to study for a test and in doing so rejected what was one of the most grand and sincerest gestures that has ever been extended to me.
Once again, my one-track minded behavior was rewarded, and I graduated summa cum laude.
I entered the workforce with the same vigor and intention to excel that I’d now been wholly ingrained with. I worked long hours, traveled extensively, and missed out on everything from birthdays to bachelorettes. The most horrifying part was that I barely felt a shred of remorse because—you guessed it—my absenteeism was rewarded with more perks and more promotions.
Everything was going swimmingly. According to my bank account, my LinkedIn profile, and the suburb I lived in, I was successful. And just think, there was even more yet to come.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been thrown a curveball, but it’s something completely and utterly unexpected. One day you’re casually walking down the street, daydreaming about the perfect outfit for tomorrow’s not at all planned “run-in” with the office building cutie, when a tiny unknown object flies straight into your eye leaving you with the distinct feeling that you’re going to be left permanently blind.
If you think that this sounds a little too detailed in description to be just a vague and random example, you’re right. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to me one bright and sunny spring day on my way back to the office from a quick lunch.
What I remember most was not so much the excruciating pain but the fear of what was going to happen to my eye as an endless stream of tears cascaded down my face. I walked briskly into the bathroom and tried my best to wash out any debris that may have been the source of my painful discomfort and profound anxiety.
I looked up at the mirror and anxiously inspected my eye. Never mind bloodshot and red, my eye was an almond-shaped pool of scarlet with absolutely no remnants of any white sclera. No matter what I did, the tears just wouldn’t stop.
Never one to be a loud alarmist, I made my way into the office and calmly informed my co-workers of what my innocent casual stroll down the road had resulted in. Expecting a rush of panic and swift assistance, I was instead met with questions around my month-end numbers that were needed to compile the final monthly report. Not even the gesture of fetching the first-aid kit which I knew was stowed in a nearby filing cabinet had been made.
As fiercely independent as I am, throughout my life I have always been, and gratefully still am, surrounded by exceptionally caring friends and family who have always readily come to my aid when the situation demanded it. I was, therefore, seriously shell-shocked by my co-workers’ demeanor of being blatantly unbothered by my medical emergency.
After the stunned realization had passed, I provided my month-end numbers, grabbed my car keys and announced that I’d be leaving to seek medical attention. I was still deathly scared, but I knew that it was solely up to me to remedy this awful situation.
I was, thankfully, able to find a nearby medical center, and I hastily made my way into the emergency room. Compared to the cold reception of my coworkers, the staff at the medical center were an absolute Godsend. They warmly talked me through the procedure of needing to flush out my eye with an orange fluorescein dye that would be used to detect any foreign bodies.
It’s an eerie and especially frightening feeling being all alone on a medical bed with bright lights shining directly on your face while unknown medical professionals try to ascertain your fate. After what felt like hours, the attending doctor confidently announced that my eye was in fact free of any foreign particles and that I was most likely still experiencing the abrasion that the particle had left.
She prescribed some antibacterial serum and sent me home with a very pirate-esque eye patch. Still visibly shaken and somewhat skeptical of the good doctor’s diagnosis, I slowly drove home all the while continuously trying to calm myself down.
Just as I got home, I received several messages from work with the main inquiry not centered around my well-being, but rather around the need for me to be at a very important client meeting that afternoon, as I was the only one with the on-the-ground knowledge needed to chair the meeting.
An incredulous wave of confusion swept over me as I struggled to comprehend my reality. My mom, who had serendipitously been visiting me, expertly comforted and soothed me. After washing my face and changing my clothes, I felt a little more clear-headed and decided to attend the client meeting.
With an eye-patch and an emptiness I’ll never be able to fully articulate, I drove to the client meeting with a firm resolve that today would be the day I start defining what success means to me, because it surely couldn’t be what I’d experienced earlier that day.
From here I started, and in many ways, I’m still continuing, my journey of carving out a definition of success—one that truly and indisputably aligns with my authentic self.
I took the decision to re-evaluate all that I’d been told my entire life about what it means to be successful, all that I’d done so far and all that I wanted for my future.
I have since cast away the stifling societal definition of what it means to be successful and replaced it with one that better suits my values and true ambitions, which have very little to do with the heftiness of my bank balance or the grand title that I bear as a professional.
To me, success is consistently showing up for my loved ones and spending meaningful time nurturing the relationships that bring me irrefutable joy, by being truly present and engaging, and not sending a last-minute apology text for missing a date or a pricey present for forgetting a birthday, as I’ve done so many times in the past.
Success means being healthy. And I don’t mean the “I can hike up that mountain in under an hour” kind of healthy. Well, that would be quite nice, but what I’m referring to goes beyond just physical health. In my mind, being healthy also includes my mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being in addition to whether or not I can keep up with my Pilates instructor.
Success is also my tangible contribution to the world I live in. Not the taxes that I pay or the sporadic donations that I make toward charities with beneficiaries that far outweigh the aid that they receive, but rather the direct impact that my actions have on another human life.
In practice, my new and still evolving definition of success means that I no longer prioritize work over my loved ones or my health.
My sense of urgency around deadlines and work commitments has been tempered with the realization that there will always be a fire to put out or a contract to win. I liken the working world to the scene of a rowdy morning fish market with countless fishmongers vying for your attention as you race from one deadline to the next, so it falls upon you to be deliberate about how you expend your energy at work.
I am also more mindful of switching off from work when I virtually log off or physically leave the office. I can happily admit that I am far more than content to step away from my job should something more pressing in my personal life demand my attention.
This is not to say that I have resigned myself to a B-grade performance—I honestly think that there is something in my DNA that prevents me from not being the meticulous individual that I am. It’s more the case that I do not spend ludicrous amounts of time perfecting a report and I no longer agree to take on far more than what my capacity allows simply for the sake of wanting to appease my superiors. I continuously strive to maintain my commitment to delivering excellence; however, it is no longer at the expense of my personal happiness and well-being.
I have also started paying more attention to my mind, spirit, and body.
If I am anxious about unpleasant thoughts, I spend a few minutes calmly doing some deep breathing.
If I am disheartened by the actions of the world, I gently remind myself that in the midst of darkness and injustice there are precious slivers of light and goodness that will always prevail.
If I am tired, I hang up the phone and sleep.
If I am hungry, I stop what I’m doing and find something to nourish my body.
All obvious cues that I had once upon a time either been utterly oblivious to or blatantly ignored.
Most importantly, I have opted to dedicate more of my time—and not merely my careless money—toward aiding causes that resonate with my desire to bridge disparity gaps and advocate for accessible education.
By far, this has been the most rewarding aspect of the change in direction of my life journey, which I would undoubtedly attribute to my willingness to redefine what success means to me. And sure, there are times when I revert back to old habits, but I am much kinder to myself these days, and so I get up the next day and just try again.
We’re not often told this, but your definition of success is exactly that—yours.
We’ve unquestioningly taken the standard societal definition of success, which has left many of us running helter-skelter chasing our own tails trying to win a race we never even signed up for.
Defining what success means to you may just be the first step in seeking the peace and contentment that we all so desperately desire.
Cam is an avid writer who has always been enthused by all types of literature. Her blog, Oh My Word, is a whimsical collection of satirical, creative and sometimes profoundly helpful musings about life and well-being.