How Do You Define Success?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The other day I read the following quote by Anna Quindlen:  “If success is not on your terms, if it looks good to the world but not feel good in your heart, it is no success at all.”  This quote really resonated with me because for many (most of) my adult life I was living based on other people’s definition of success.  In my mid-30s, I finally realized that living based on others’ definition of success did not make me successful at all. In fact, it kept me from being a true success.  The following is an excerpt from my most recent book, Letting Go Of The Status Quo, which talks about this idea of “keeping score” against other’s definition of success and how it can impact your life versus having your own definition of success.


“What’s the score?”

“Who’s winning?”

“Where do you rank?”

“How did you rate?”

Such common questions, aren’t they? It seems that we are always hearing about who is winning the game or what the score is, which company earns the most profit, who ranks highest in this or that. In fact, I believe these common questions and assessments about who is doing something better than someone else have been etched into our brains since we were kids. At least that is how it was for me. Although my parents always told me to do the best I could regardless of what I was doing, there was an underlying drive that not only did I have to do the best, but I also had to be perfect. I was a perfectionist who thrived on getting straight As, on having at least a 3.8 GPA while in both college and grad school, and yes, doing the “best I could” because doing that meant I’d be successful. I had the recipe: good grades, good schools, corporate job, success. Check. Check. Check. I was ahead of the game. I was successful. Or was I?

Successful: another word that is etched into my being. What does that mean, really? I know what I learned as a kid and that’s what’s remained with me for most of my life. Two things about growing up in an Italian family that are forever embedded in my soul are the emphasis on family and, at least in my family, everyone knowing everyone else’s business. For us, family was (and is) the most important thing. I can still hear my Italian grandparents (all four of them) saying, “There’s nothing like family!” How close we were as a family and how close you were as an individual with your family members were measures of success (or that was the message I interpreted based on what I saw and heard). Because of this, I was heavily influenced by many of the expectations set for me by family members.

There were clear expectations set forth by my parents (mostly my dad) regarding the type of and level of education I would get. Checked that box. There were also clear expectations set forth less overtly regarding marriage and having children. The subtle messages I picked up as I was growing up were, first, if you weren’t married before age thirty, something must be wrong with you, and, second, children were an assumed part of the entire progression of life (after marriage, of course).  Now, keep in mind, these weren’t verbalized messages. They were subtle things I picked up on based on how marriage and family were spoken about among my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I was okay with the first message about marriage (clearly, since I got married twice) but it was the second one, about children, that I was less certain about. I now think it would have been wise to question both of these messages.

I was never one of those people who had a huge desire to be a mom. Of course, I never wanted to actually admit that, because if you were a member of my family and said something out loud, chances were the rest of the family would know about it by the next day (and this was before email and cell phones). I was afraid that if I admitted that I hated babysitting, my family would think something was wrong with me. I’m sure I believed something was wrong with me, but I hated babysitting and am pretty sure I only babysat twice in my life, at age twelve, for two bratty children and one colicky infant. Those bad experiences didn’t scar me because even before I babysat l felt uncomfortable around people under the age of ten (except, of course, when I was under the age of ten, and, except today, with my niece and nephew). Yet I was a play-by-the-rules kind of girl, so I knew I’d get married and have kids. Then no one in my family would talk about me.

The older I get the more I realize how programmed I was by societal (and familial) messages about what is right and wrong. Not wanting children seemed “wrong” in so many ways, and not because of anything other than what I heard from other people. Admitting it seemed even more wrong.

When I met Matt, I was almost shocked to discover that he (who had never been married and had no children) also felt this way regarding children. This was a huge relief.  Wow, there are other people in their thirties who don’t have children, by choice? Child-free by choice, is how we like to phrase it. We are very happy with our decision. We adore our nieces and nephews and are happy to spoil them as much as we can; we are also happy that the only others we share our home with are four-legged creatures. That is how it is today but for many years I was ashamed of the fact that I didn’t want children. I was concerned about what other people would think. I was concerned that my family was keeping score and this was one I knew I wouldn’t win. And who really likes to lose?

Yet by the time I was thirty-six and getting out of marriage number two, I certainly felt like I was losing in my personal life. And yes, I was keeping score, about everything in my life. I now know the reason I was keeping score was because I assumed everyone else was keeping score, too. I have no idea who “everyone else” was, nor do I really know whose scoreboard I was measuring myself against. It was a scoreboard created from years of programming and making assumptions based on things I heard and observed, not based on what I wanted or needed in my life. By the time I finally realized the only thing I should be assessing myself against is what fulfills and satisfies me, I had years of programming and deep habitual ways of behaving that were not easy to change. I needed to recognize that there wasn’t a “success scoreboard” to measure myself against, at least not until I had clearly defined what success meant to me. And even when I did define what success meant to me, was it necessary to keep score?

How do you define success? How much of it is your own definition versus others’ definition?  By others I mean the people in your life who influence you: your friends and family, teachers, society, and any other people who have impact on your life and your decisions. Having your own definition of success is essential as you go through re-creating or redesigning parts of your life. It’s also something that will continue to change as life changes. Priorities change, which means the definition of success, will also change….

For more information on Andria’s latest book, please visit Letting Go Of The Status Quo or purchase a copy on Amazon.

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