When the welfare system went electric, and the county stopped issuing food stamps, I did a victory dance. I would no longer have to feel that heavy, dark dread while rolling up to the cashier in a grocery store with my mom. I would no longer have to pretend to “go browse” at the magazines when I spotted someone from school while checking out. Or feel that deep, dense self-loathing when the person behind us rolled their eyes as Mom pulled out her stash of colorful food coupons. The county was issuing everyone on food stamps a card and it looked just like a debit card. Now no one at the grocery store--except for the cashier--would know that I was poor.
My childhood, more than anything else, shaped my need for success, and it started way earlier in my life than I had originally thought. I came to the U.S. in 1990 when I was five years old, but it wasn't like I packed my suitcase and hopped in a plane to start a beautiful, shiny new life. I was a refugee. We lived in two refugee camps before we saw an airplane. We survived on the rationed food distributed to our family every week. Sometimes, I spend moments in awe of my parents’ strength never knowing, day in and day out, whether or not their children were going to eat.
Then when we arrived in the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on our back, a black-bottomed pot, and each other, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment for eleven years. We grew into a family of nine in that apartment. In that small farming community where I never felt welcomed.
I grew up poorer than the cockroaches nesting in our family kitchen. (Wait, do cockroaches nest?)
That, to start, is where my need to keep getting degrees and earning money in order to feel successful comes from. Then throw in my mom’s tough love, my insecurity about my looks (as a result of tough love), and FOMO (fear of missing out) and you get an ugly, warped idea of success. Picture Grievers from The Maze Runner.
Last year, I was at a point in my life when just the word “success” would send me into momentary panic. I was closing in on my fourth anniversary at my organization, and I felt stuck. I watched colleagues move up and around and I began to experience FOMO. I applied for a level three student services professional position, and when I didn't get it, I was crushed. I immediately read this failure as, “I'm not successful.” My self worth dropped to a zero. In my search to rebuild my self worth, I realized that I had been measuring my success by other people’s standards. Not only was this not healthy, but it was making me work my booty off for something I didn't even want. I knew then that I needed to redefine and refine my definition of success.
Fighting off external forces that define success
We are a consumerist society. Ever since the goo cleared from our eyes and we could make meanings out of the noise around us, we have been bombarded with society’s ideas of success. In magazines, on commercials, billboards, and now social media. They've been trying to shove their ideas of success down our throats.
Have you ever played the If-Only-Then-I’ll-Be game? I’ve been playing that game since elementary school. If only Mom would buy me a pink Easter basket for my Easter eggs, then I’ll be happy. If only Mom would buy me a Barbie just like cousin Mai’s, then I’ll be happy. If only the captain of the football team with his blue eyes, blonde hair, and nonchalant attitude about life would ask me out, then I’ll be happy. And when I got older… If only I could live in my own apartment, then I’ll be happy. If only they would hire me, then I’ll be satisfied. If only I made $100,000 a year, then I’ll be successful.
Ever played that game?
It’s a dangerous game to play. This is game didn’t come from nowhere. It came from TV commercials, gushy romantic comedies (I’m looking at YOU She’s All That), magazines, comparison, and so much more. And now social media has made it even easier to play this game.
The only problem is we don't know the truth behind the images we see or the stories we hear. We don't know whether the $100,000 paying job is also going to have 100,000 responsibilities. We don't know how much money that couple on Instagram spent to have their wedding on a vineyard. Maybe they went into debt to have a fancy wedding they couldn’t afford. We don’t know, but we are drawn to pretty things. We’re consumers. We want. So we put it on our If-Only-Then-I’ll-Be list.
Then what happens is our list becomes crazy long. We, whether consciously or not, start to think success is all of these things put together. In the end, we try to be the perfect woman with the perfect job, married to the perfect man, living in the perfect house, taking the perfect vacation. Without realizing it, we have set ourselves up to achieve the impossible.
When this happens, we have let external forces define our success. Last year, I was nearly lured back into this search for success. Seeing others move up and around made me feel like I had to be doing the same thing. I had applied to two positions with higher incomes as well as grad school before I realized I was playing the If-Only-Then-I’ll-Be game. I was chasing the horizon without realizing that there will always be a horizon.
Embracing internal forces that define success
When I realized I was letting other people’s ideas of success become my reality, I couldn’t allow it to happen anymore. I reminded myself that success wasn’t a destination, it was a feeling. It was the happiness I felt when I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. It is the satisfaction I got by building a project from scratch and seeing it achieve its purpose. It is the excitement of writing a new novel. It is the internal peace I feel knowing that I have a roof over my head, food to eat, a job that pays the bills, and a family and friends who love and support me.
And I think that’s what it comes down to: internal peace. Yes, I grew up poorer than cockroaches, but that didn’t mean I grew up empty. I grew up knowing what love and sacrifice and safety was, and I owed it to myself to return to that.
I refocused my energy. Instead of searching for a job with higher pay and a shiny new title, I focused on what I could do to make the most impact in my current position. Instead of buying new outfits every month, I focused on filtering my wardrobe to the outfits that made me feel the best about myself. Instead of getting another degree, I focused on building the specific skills I needed in order to do what is meaningful to me.
You get the picture.
When I refocused my energy, my life became more successful. I got my finances under control. My husband and I began to communicate better. More meaningful opportunities came my way. And I found more clarity in my life than ever before. Just last week, a close colleague said to me, “Why didn’t you apply for that advising position that opened up? You were totally qualified.” I shrugged and said simply, “I saw the position open up, but didn’t want to apply.” I had gotten to a place where I didn’t need to chase the horizon anymore.
Redefining success for yourself
Do you feel the constant pull of the horizon? Like if you just reach it, you’ll finally feel like you made it? Are you working your booty off but don’t know what for? Are you speeding toward a future you’re not even sure you want? If any of these questions resonate with you, then maybe you’re at a point in your life where you need to redefine success.
To start redefining success, in your journal or on a piece of paper, complete these statements:
- Right now, the most important things in my life are _________, _________ and _________.
- When I picture myself succeeding, I feel __________, __________ and __________.
- When I am 100 years old and in my deathbed, I will be most proud of ______________.
Did you answer “money” to any of these questions? Be honest here. This is a no judgement zone. Whether or not you did, I’d like to challenge you to answer these questions without associating your answers with money. Money and everything money buys is external. Let’s put our focus on internal success. If you couldn't assign money or anything tangible to success, what would your answers to these questions be?
Then take a look at your answers. Are your actions right now leading you to your answers? If they are, great. If they’re not, what can you do to change your trajectory?
Being present with success
Recovering addicts are taught to constantly be present and mindful, and I think success requires us all to do the same. At any moment we can forget that success comes from inside us, not outside us. When that happens, we get drawn into the If-Only-Then-I’ll-Be game again. We start comparing ourselves to others. We start focusing on external measures of success. And we start feeling unsatisfied.
Dissatisfaction leads to horizon-chasing. When you’re busy horizon-chasing, you let other people’s ideas of success become your reality. You forget to appreciate what you have, and you begin to want more and more and more. Don’t let other people’s ideas of success become your reality. Define what success means to you and design your own reality.
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