Singer-songwriter Lea Morris takes a walk with her personal concept of success in this insightful video. She contrasts the American dream of wealth, fame, and power with the idea of personal fulfillment, which can vary widely. I resonate with her personal definition of success as the ability to create and experience joy in everyday life, and I was inspired to reflect upon not only what my definition of success is but who has attempted to define success for me throughout my life and why.
It's easy to recognize that "society" influences us to define success in terms of metrics on money, attention, and influence. But who actually does the dirty work of drilling those beliefs and values into our minds? Why is it so difficult for some of us to feel that we have the right to define success differently for ourselves? What significant people in our lives recorded the voices in our heads that tell us things that sometimes conflict with the quieter truths in our souls?
Were we educated by teachers compelled to wring certain short-term metrics out of us to assure their own job security, regardless of what that process did for our long-term wellbeing or our future value to society?
Were we raised by codependent caregivers who saw us as reflections of themselves, who desperately needed to live vicariously through us or to push us to achieve certain brag-worthy benchmarks as proofs of their own worth?
Were we labeled "gifted and talented" or at least "special" and therefore incapable of failing by accident? Were we then punished for our academic, creative, and extracurricular mistakes and inabilities as signs of rebellious wickedness? Were we trained to avoid taking risks that could expose us as impostors, or worse, ungrateful perversions who failed on purpose out of sheer spite for those who only wanted the best for us?
Were we surrounded by peers facing the same pressures from teachers and families? Did we notice that our successes hurt them and enraged them with envy so fierce they wished for our deaths? Did we try to diminish ourselves to protect or appease them?
Were we employed by bosses who needed to see a list of hard-earned boxes checked on our resumes but then made it clear that we were not authorized to set our own goals at work? Were we gaslit into believing that our value could be measured strictly by daily company sales stats?
Have we striven for a balance between excellence and self-deprecation to avoid the frightening hatred constantly threatened by those we depend upon for survival, for doing not enough or too much, or for daring to attempt to define our own goals?
Have we rebelled against any or all of these unfair pressures only to get stuck in a trap of constant reactivity that is no less chained to irrelevant outside opinions than conformity is?
There is real value in rebellion, but only when it serves as a temporary shake-up to buy us the time and space to figure out what we need to do next. Otherwise it can become an addictive trap in and of itself, a narcissistic doom spiral that serves no one.
And there is real value in working toward a communal vision, even when that means making some personal sacrifices for the greater good. Personal goals that are totally out of step with the needs in our communities are selfish nonsense. And yet, how often are we told that someone else's goals for us are being projected on us "for our own good" or "for the greater good" when neither is true? How often are our trust and our eagerness to contribute hijacked for the exploitative ends of a soulless corporation or a corrupted power?
The trick is to learn how to discern, mindfully, which definitions of success are actually in alignment with our own wellbeing and the social values we hold dear. The greediest top predators in our society test us with lies at every turn, lies passed down through people who sincerely do care about us--our teachers, our parents, our friends, our colleagues--who have been gaslit into believing the lies so sincerely that they push them on us with the passion of religious zealotry. No wonder we spend so much of our lives confused about why we are always striving but never arriving.
So, to cut through this confusion, I believe that what we need to ask ourselves first isn't how we define success, because most of us have been trained all our lives to parrot someone else's answer to that question. The first questions to ask are who has defined success for us and why. After that, we can begin to examine whether the memorized definitions in our heads actually align with our own natural inclinations and sincerely held values.
I believe that the answer is simple in general though possibly complicated in the specifics. As Lea says, I believe the general answer has to do with joy--success is the ability to create joy for the self and loved ones--because as human beings, we have evolved to become social creatures with inherent motivations to take good care of ourselves and our communities. Doing what we are meant to do feels good all the way down to our bones, because that is how we are wired through evolution. It doesn't necessarily feel good like a sugar high followed by a crash; it feels like serenity, peace, and deep meaning. It doesn't mean we never feel pain or experience hardship; it means we grow the strength to endure difficulty because we are successfully loving ourselves, our communities, and what we do each day.
In this strange, new era of industrialized and post-industrial human societies, some of us have been raised, educated, and employed by older generations that thought we needed to be trained in a brave new model of success as a measure of productivity in a fast-consumption economy. Now the world has already changed rapidly, imploding under self-inflicted environmental disasters and health crises both physical and mental.
It is time to reevaluate what success means to us individually and collectively.
Me, I believe that human beings can develop alternatives to economies of constant growth. Unchecked growth is cancer, and evolution does not follow a consistent "bigger is better" trajectory. Getting rich and famous and powerful can certainly provide us tools for fulfilling our needs and solving problems for ourselves, but when they are pursued as ends in themselves, they can become even bigger problems.
We live in a complex society that has given us many privileges and comforts, and I am grateful for that. I don't want to see it all go to waste because we all decided it was rude or pessimistic to acknowledge when systems aren't working as intended anymore--when we've had too much of a good thing--when our good intentions have been used to pave a road to somewhere we really don't want to go.
On a personal level, I'm almost 40 years old, right in the middle of my life if I'm lucky. I don't want to spend the next 40 years, or more, or less, whatever I end up getting, feeling like I haven't made it to "good enough" yet. I don't want to spend that time wearing myself out striving toward unrealistic or misdirected goals, too busy to stop and enjoy what I have along the way.
This is it.
My childhood is done and over; my young adulthood is wrapping up too. Now all I have is my middle age and my old age--again, if I'm lucky enough to get my full measure of fancy modern life expectancy. We can't take our money or our fame or our power with us when we die, so none of us "win" in the end. We win by living while we're alive.
The ongoing pandemic has made this abundantly clear to me. I have had plenty of time to reflect upon what it is that makes my heart sing and what I can't afford to let pass me by.
Like Lea, I know that I don't enjoy being poor or ignored. Of course, everyone has basic needs that make life easier when they are assured. But beyond having our basic hungers sated, what makes us feel truly alive?
For me, it's homemaking and art. I feel an ecstatic burst of joy every afternoon when I go to pick my daughter up from school and see her adorable self gamboling around outside the school with her friends. I hardly give any thought to bragging about her accomplishments or pushing her to think about what career she'll pursue when she grows up--yuck. That stuff feels sad and boring and pointless to me, especially in such a rapidly changing world that none of us can predict well enough to think we can micromanage and manipulate our kids onto a reliable track to adult success. Seeing her just be a happy, healthy child squeezing every pleasure out of her existence in this crazy world makes me feel like little hearts are exploding out of my skin.
I feel that way when my husband gets out of work early, or when I wake up in the morning to the smell of espresso he's made for me before he left for his early shift.
I feel a zing of affection when my cat runs to the door to greet me when I come home.
I feel like glitter inside when I have friends over and serve them good food and homey comforts and pleasurable company, when I take the time to hear about their wonderful, unique longings and joys and interests.
I take deep satisfaction in designing and decorating my home in ways that increase the joy and comfort of my family, my friends, and myself.
I like lounging around watching artsy movies and foreign films. I like listening to grotesque and shocking stand-up comedy.
I like reading books, sometimes four or five times, secretly, intimately, without letting anyone know my numbers or my lists--reading is sacred and private, and I never want it to feel like homework or performance.
But I also like reading to my daughter and making up dramatic character voices, or doing a deep dive into a book discussion with a friend who really gets it.
I'm not a musician, but I submerge in music like a fish in water, letting it take me places.
I love visual art--making it but mostly appreciating it, honoring it, surrounding myself with it.
I like baking ugly, buttery cookies in a vintage Mrs. Fields apron.
And I'm learning how to detox my soul of the notions that these inclinations of mine are unfeminist, lazy, stupid, passive, silly, unimportant, selfishly indulgent, or, let's call it what it really is, too feminine.
I like sex. I like cuddles. I like getting enough sleep and chocolate.
I like challenging myself when it feels clean and healthy and empowering.
I like dancing by myself, and I like throwing myself off cliffs on a sled, and I like working behind the scenes for social justice movements that lift up real people's lives in ways that I get to find out about.
The thing about being a unique little snowflake in a big, complex society like ours is that there is a place for everybody to fit right in and be their best self without getting in anyone else's way. It's easy to get lost or exploited in a big, impersonal society like ours, but on the other hand, there is always an escape, another option to try, an exciting road yet to be explored.
If the deepest desires in our hearts are neither self-abusive nor violent toward others, then there is nothing more tragic than ignoring or suppressing them. So many different things can make a person feel alive; we can't and should not try to be everything to everyone, only our own true selves. A complex society relies upon diversification to function. We need specialists in a wide range of functions, so there's no shame in being uninterested or incompetent at any particular thing. Trying new things and giving them a real shot is healthy, but after that, trying to force ourselves to enjoy or excel at something we know we're not into is a waste of our time and others' too.
And we don't need to analyze or justify why we love what we love. Our hearts won't change their magnetic poles whether we understand them or not, or whether we can explain them satisfactorily to anyone who inquires. All we need to do, all we can do if we want a chance at happiness within our one wild and precious life, is to recognize our deepest desires like long-lost friends and embrace them.
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of salacious, barbaric novels set in medieval Eurasia.