[Excerpt from a recent school assignment on success.]
Especially as a junior, as I’ve started to think about college admissions and the extent to which they should dictate my life, I’ve struggled a lot in the past few years about what success really means. Since my elementary school years, I held this firm conviction in my heart that I will be a real world-changer and my name will be bolded in the history textbooks of the next centuries. It was a belief that seemed obvious to me. How I would get there was a question I never deeply considered. I assumed that, because I’d been told I had a quick intellect and a natural talent for things, the opportunity to bend history would present itself naturally to me and I’d take it easily, succeed, and revel in my success for the rest of my life. I was going to be greater than King Tut and George Washington and Bill Gates. Soon… it would happen someday. Duh.
That’s what success meant to me: changing the world to such a degree that people of all nations would know my name for millennia. Looking at the people now we as a society deem successful—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, Jennifer Lawrence, Yo Yo Ma, etc.—I can say this: success as the world defines it is being prominent enough in one’s field or accomplished enough out of one’s aspirations to be held in high esteem by others. Without the approval of others, there is no such thing as success because such an integral part of overarching worldly success is other people. Without people to remember what you did centuries from now, what does it matter? Without millions of people spreading news about you on social media, without nations to proclaim your greatness, how great can you really be?
There’s a second kind of success that most should strive for and experience fairly regularly. In this everyday sense, success is accomplishing a goal that one sets for him or herself. Success can mean anything from scoring well on a quiz, to getting a job, to a batch of chocolate chip cookies coming out well, to a batch of chocolate chip cookies coming out as a plate of burnt goo, if that was the primary goal. Oftentimes these kinds of small successes are put towards a goal of achieving some variation of the broader worldly success—the “successful” or “unsuccessful” label that is slapped onto one’s life after death.
Because worldly success is so dependent on others (even if one’s definition of success is making enough money to support the family, without the family to satisfy, what defines the success?), truly personal success deserves its own category. This is success on one’s own terms, disregarding everything the world says about what team one must make to be successful, or how high an office one must achieve, or how long one’s single must stay on Billboard 100. My dad is not famous, but he’s living out his personal ambitions as the head of a small software startup—he’s happy, he tells me, and he’s being successful. It can go the other way as well. In a 2005 interview on “60 Minutes,” Tom Brady, an NFL quarterback with four Super Bowl wins, a supermodel wife, and extreme wealth, revealed that even though he’s achieved success by anyone’s standards—saying, “I reached my goal, my dream, my life”—he still thinks, “God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?”
I would love to succeed in this world like my younger self dreamed, but it’s not my primary goal anymore. I’m going to define success for myself, personally, as living meaningfully. As a Christian, that also means keeping my focus on God and not even on my everyday successes and failures—because if I learn something from a failure, I can count the learning a success. A meaningful life is composed of achieving certain goals and failing to achieve others, and I’ll try my best to reach the bars I set for myself, but I won’t define my overarching success by reaching them, or by the praise of future generations.
I mean, I’ll try not to.
Deus te benedicat,
Isabella – 9/1/16