Redefining Success

12 Sep

When we were little, our parents dreamed of our future success. Doctors, lawyers, CEOs, politicians—those were the kind of jobs that signified obvious achievement. Other careers were acceptable, as long as you’re good enough at it to be both well-known and well-off. Our teachers told us we could be anything we wanted to be if we put our mind to it. I can’t count the number of times I heard or read those exact words, splashed across posters in the library, watermarked on a yearbook page, spouted in assembly, at graduation. They wanted for us all the things that they never had, or that they had to work hard for, and (in the case of women especially), perhaps things they weren’t even allowed to want to be.

“Whatever we wanted to be” meant, of course, doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief et al. That was the definition of success—a stable, well-paying career. Our parents wanted us to be happy first and foremost of course; all good parents wish that for their children. But the understanding was that happiness was a direct result of being successful. Attain one, the other will come. That had been true for their parents and mostly true for them as well. But today, looking at my life and thinking of the one I want for my own child, I wonder if that isn’t completely and totally backwards.

Could it be that the formula we’ve been working with all these years (study = do well in school = get into a good four year college + study some more = earn a degree = find a decent job + work hard at it = upward mobility = success) just doesn’t cut it anymore? Or could it be it was never the right formula to begin with?

What if success itself is contentment and peace, and the way to reach it isn’t a progression of endless striving, but a rotation of gentle molding, like clay on a potter’s wheel?

The recession hit just in time for us to discover that our college education wasn’t going to be the golden ticket we thought it would be—that everyone had assured us it was. Many of us already in the work force lost our fledgling jobs. Those of us still in school wondered if we’d ever get a job when we got out—any kind of job—and some of us wondered if the debt was worth it, or if we could even afford to finish.

The generation above us took a big hit in 2008 for sure; retirement funds and home equity are still weak even now. But for us who were just starting adulthood, our confidence was shaken to the core. Suddenly it was by no means certain we would ever “be what we wanted to be,” much less any time soon.

So many of us are drifting about with amazing skills and education, either underemployed or in jobs we don’t really care about, no idea how we ended up here or where to go next or how to get there, and mostly just trying to be grateful that things aren’t worse. Looking at my own child now, the only thing I want for him is happiness. Not the grasping, sputtering, achy dullness of wasted potential, wondering if he even has potential in the first place or if it was only lip service from his elders. I worry I’ll be doing him a disservice if I don’t push him to be a man of means or the best in his field, but if I’m being really honest, that’s not what I want for him. Rather, I want him to be of service to his fellow man, humble and grateful for what he has, loving and caring for others, passionate about life’s gifts. I want him to be jolly.

But it’s hard to draw the line. How do you teach the distinction between carefree and careless? Between being self-sufficient and self-serving? Of course I don’t want him to be a hedonist or a moocher. But I also don’t want him to feel like anything less than perfection is settling. How can I teach him that when I still feel that way myself?

As children of the middle class (and in the 80s and 90s, that was a lot of us), our failures were cushioned, and we were given “every opportunity” to succeed. I wonder how many of us feel that we actually have. (The irony is that as adults, the pressure to be better than we are, to have more than we have, is self-inflicted. I suspect our parents are prouder than us than we are of ourselves). Because of those opportunities and the steel mesh safety net we had as youngsters, it seems ridiculous to be anything but perfect adults.  But in reality, that’s like someone yanking off our water wings and throwing us into the deep end. Why are we surprised to find we can’t swim?

It’s not our parents’ faults. They did their best; they tried to help us become what it seemed like the world wanted. The problem is schools that overemphasized cognitive intelligence—the kind of knowledge that goes on a Scantron. That’s deadly when combined with a society that overvalues the ability to buy SUVs and golf clubs (well, maybe Priuses and iPads would be more accurate now, but you know what I mean.) Until those things change it’s not going to be easy to find personal fulfillment, nor to teach our children the skills and values that might lead them to their own.

I’m willing to try though. It’s tempting to call ourselves the second Lost Generation and chalk it all up to forces beyond our control. But even if I’m never able to conquer the rat maze (or even escape it), at least I can do all I can to make sure my son never enters it. I can teach him that happiness is success. If you can achieve that, then boy, you’ve made it.

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