So, we all are instilled with ideas of what success means, from our parents, from our schoolteachers, from our peers. The issue with all these ideas is a) that they don't come from you and b) that even if you tried to chase these ideas of success instead of ideas of your own, these ideas conflict so it's impossible. You want to be a successful career woman, but you also want to marry so rich that you never have to work a day in your life. You want to have beautiful, rosy children, but you also want to backpack through Europe without screaming toddlers. You want a house with a white picket fence in the suburbs in the states, but you also want a villa in Italy, a house in the Swiss Alps you can take to in the winter to ski, and a beach house in Mexico for the summers. Essentially, if you're trying to live up to all of these things, you're screwed.
The thing is that success should come with a sense of pride and joy. You should be proud of what you've accomplished and what you have because you've supposedly worked for it and achieved it, and it's something you wanted so getting it makes you happy. If you're following somebody else's ideals of what being successful means, you may be striving for something that doesn't instill you with pride or happiness at all, and then really, you aren't successful. You may have something other people value, but you don't have anything that you're going to look at fondly, that's going to last you and that you're going to want to share for the rest of your life.
In my competitive high school, being successful making taking all of the AP classes, getting good grades, and going to a university with an impressive name that you could wear on a sweatshirt and that would eventually promise you a degree that would make you lasting wealth. I took the AP classes and got good grades. Check and check. I got into a decent school and bought a sweatshirt. Check, check. Then I had to pick a major. Shit, I thought. I loved writing. But English majors weren't successful. English majors made shit money and grading writing was so subjective that college classes would be so easy. Science meant success and I was decent at science, so I chose that.
When I got to school, I realized I wanted to change majors. I realized that I would feel more successful if I could learn to make a living doing something I loved rather than following a path already laid before me (science -> money). I would feel more successful if I could do that. I switched and became an English major.
Now, I'm at an unpaid internship. My best friend and boyfriend, both mechanical engineering majors, made $4,000 their first month interning this summer and yes, they've got months to go. It feels shameful, to be studying and working and have no money to show for it. It seems shameful to go to career fairs and see the complete lack of job security and benefits in my field compared to the fields of my friends.
But now we return to the thing. I feel like I would be capable of earning a degree in biology or even mechanical engineering. But I would hate my classes. I would not want to share or ever talk about the things I was learning about. I wouldn't feel proud, saying, oh, I know thermodynamics. But I wouldn't feel proud coming home from my high-paying job, just relieved that my long, boring day was over and that I could relax in my plush home. I could show off my job, my degree, and whatever possessions I owned. I could show them off, and other people might perceive me as successful, but I would not feel, internally, as if I had achieved success.
In another scenario, I could continue writing. I feel proud when I ace a paper because in part it was a labour I cared about - I cared about the subject I was writing about, the mentor I was writing for, the thought and creativity I poured into it over coffee and bagels. When I graduate, I probably won't find a high-paying job. In fact, I'm sure it'll be hard to find work at all. But the first time I'm published and paid for it, I'll feel proud. The first time I get a pay raise or a promotion, I'll feel proud. And when I share those things with friends and family, I will feel as if I have achieved success. I will feel as if I did something that I cared about, though knowing it would be difficult, and at the end of the day, even if I choose a brown fence or a freaking electric fence instead of a white one, even if I never own a summer house on the cape, I will feel like I have achieved success.
Video: What Is Success? | Sarah Garr | TEDxWestVancouverED
Credit: TEDx Talks