Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou.
What does success mean to you? For some it is all about the bling, the buying power or notoriety. For others, it means being respected for talents used to be of service to the world. Still, for many, it reflects their ability to reach a pinnacle in their field of endeavor. The author of these words has an ambivalent, dare I say, love/hate relationship with success. I both desire it and fear it, since I reason that I can’t rest on my laurels if I have reached a plateau and need to climb ever higher.
I was raised in a blue-collar, immigrant family whose paternal grandparents fled Russia due to persecution, I learned early on that hard work and focused intention brought about beneficial outcomes. My dad (the son of a father who worked at what I’m sure was a low paying job as a presser in a clothing factory) was ashamed of the fact that his family was on ‘relief’ and required government assistance. He promised himself that it would not follow him into his adulthood. How it played out was that he became a workaholic (my perception), getting up at 4 a.m. to go to his job, initially as a milkman and then later, as a bus driver. He would come home gritty and tired, but take a shower, have dinner and then play with us until he ‘hit the sack,’ around 8 p.m. The fact that he was able to support his family (along with my mother who held many part-time jobs that permitted her to be home with us until we were old enough to be latch key kids and she got a full-time job as a switchboard operator) was a measure of success. We didn’t live luxuriously, but there were always funds for shelter, food, clothing, toys, books, activities, education and mini vacations. They would say that we were rich in love.
My mother had a divergent upbringing. Her parents were American born (ironically, her father was a milkman too). She grew up in a family with many aunts, uncles and cousins since my grandmother was one of 13 children. I often asked her how her grandparents managed such a large brood and her answer was that the older kids took care of the younger kids. My question was more about the financial aspects of raising them since my great-grandfather owned a corner store. She shrugged her shoulders. What I heard often from my mother was that my grandmother ‘had a money tree in the backyard,’ since there always seemed to be enough. She was widowed when my mom was 18 and I can’t imagine my grandfather left a large inheritance, but they always managed.
This professional hyphenate: social worker-therapist-minister-journalist-speaker-coach-editor dances between those two dynamics. There is the ancestral fear coming from my father’s side of the family that there won’t be enough, and I will have to “work crazy hours,” as my mother referred to my father’s work ethic. I would much rather ascribe to my grandmother’s attitude. I was widowed at 40, with an 11-year-old son to raise as a single parent and was gripped with ‘uh oh, how am I going to do this?’ fear. As I gaze back over the timeline (19 years now), I am proud that I had kept us in the same house, doing what it took to pay the bills; albeit sometimes overworking that contributed to stress related health challenges. That could be one definition of success. I admit that the drive to meet my journalist/speaker peers on ‘the big stage,’ has been confounding at times. I wonder what steps they took, what relationships they forged and what tumbles and triumphs they experienced to stand facing large audiences, calling in hefty speakers’ fees.
In conversation with a long-time friend who sometimes struggles with money issues, she reminded me that I am operating from surplus; meaning that I always have what I need to take care of bills. I am planning a dream of a lifetime trip to Ireland shortly and have the funds to pay for it. At the same time, I experienced what I call ‘a test of the emergency sanity system.’ Yesterday, after receiving a check compensating me for a class I taught a few weeks ago, I was delighted that I would have this as extra money to take with me. A moment later, my car was sucked into a massive pothole which blew out the tire; the same one I had to replace a few months earlier for the same reason. I took a deep breath and after a few choice words, I took it to the nearest tire place and less than an hour later, I was on my way to my destination, blessing that I had the funds to pay for it, with much left over.
One of my long-time challenges is noticing that those in my chosen career field (social worker/therapist) are notoriously underpaid and therefore, undervalued. A quote I have seen that makes me want to gag is that we are “in it for the outcome, not the income,” as if that is somehow noble. A measure of success in most cultures is the number of zeros on the paycheck. NFL football players, lawyers, doctors and rock stars are, by that standard, more successful than those of us who sit in the presence of people whose emotional lacerations are gaping and raw. I see clinicians as surgeons of the soul who have learned to help clean out the wounds and sew them back up. Yes, this is a noble calling, but my utility company charges me the same rate as someone with a much higher earning capacity.
For me, success is:
- Doing what I love and loving what I do, at least a majority of the time
- Having raised my son to be a good man who is now happily married to the love of his life
- Being of service
- Being a role model
- Having loving relationships
- Exhibiting kindness
- Speaking respectfully
- Attaining a sense of grit
- Living authentically; what you see is what you get
- Ability to acknowledge mistakes and create do-overs
- Taking responsibility for my life, not blaming others for failures or crediting someone else for achievements
- Learning from those who have reached certain pinnacles that I endeavor to touch
- Setting intentions and following through
- Being accountable to myself and someone else for doing what I say I will do
- Feeling and expressing gratitude for what I do have
- Paying my bills and having more than enough to do what I choose
- Being recognized as proficient in my field
- Having a sense of contentment about my life
- Knowing that I am enough, do enough and have enough (this one is a work in progress)
Success statements of others:
“For me, success is simply being happy and feeling good. Even when I find myself in painful experiences, I can feel good about it if I am using that challenge or difficulty as an opportunity to heal myself, release that which no longer serves me, and become clearer. Beyond that, feeling successful is feeling that I am in alignment with my mission and purpose. My mission and purpose are to maintain awareness that the truth of my being is pure love, and to live as an expression of that love in whatever forms and expressions that takes on. That’s all. Simple.”
“I don’t have a need to succeed. I’m content with what shows up for me.”
“I don’t need to succeed. Success is an endpoint and I’m constantly evolving. I dislike the failure/success dichotomy. Failure is Success! You can’t let others define your experiences for you. P.S. When you fail, try to do it in public and make sure it’s spectacular! That way people know you tried and looked fabulous doing it.”
“Lately I have been realizing that my desire to succeed is an egoic thing and not necessarily in alignment with my spiritual purpose. “Success” as defined by Western “civilization” is often inextricably bound with material wealth and fame, and neither of those things matter in the world of spirit. Success in the spiritual realm is about things like our connection to Source, our ability to love unconditionally, and our willingness to serve. So, I have been pondering this dichotomy. I realize that wanting to succeed based on societal expectations is not necessarily in alignment with my soul path.”