What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

A recent article by Genevieve Smith, published in April by Elle magazine, raises the question of what it means to young people to truly be successful. Smith describes her youthful pursuit of a “creative” job at a magazine for which she earned less money than she could have at the financial magazine where she first worked. She agrees, at the beginning, with a friend who told her: “I cared about career success. I didn’t care about security.”

But, says Smith, she and her husband eventually concluded that in order to have all of the things they wanted out of life (“mostly shoes, but also vacations, a dog, organic produce, dinners out, drinks”), she would have to earn more money. This realization sent her searching through her past, examining her choices and also looking at her father’s life. Her father, a low-earning civil servant, chose that career path over pursuing his dreams of becoming an artist.

She asks her father if he regrets not pursuing his dreams—and he tells her, “No.” She goes on to explain that “he realized how hard a life that would be, always having to scramble to keep the money coming. So instead, he found a career that drew on something else he cared about—helping others—and that would also, in later years, allow him to support a family and have enough time to be active in raising them. ‘I was never out to make a whole lot of money. My whole goal was balance,’ he said.” Her father defines what success means to him, and he acts accordingly.

Smith goes on to explain how what she learned from her father has changed her life: “I’m not quite ready to give up on the dream or to scale back my ambition, but I’m learning to be less dogmatic in how I define success for myself and to stop thinking of low-paid work as a badge of authenticity,” she says. She is moderating her wishes, examining what she truly wants, and realizing that she will have to give something up (the sense of worth she gets in working for a job that doesn’t pay very well) in order to have something else that she also wants (financial stability).

Considering the meaning of “success” may seem like a very simple step, but I think it is one that many of us, in the days of “leaning in” and “having it all” seem to miss. But I also think that Smith stops short of her father’s example of making a balanced choice about what to pursue. Smith wants two things: 1. To feel good about herself and her job as a “creative” person, and 2. To have a lot of money to buy nice things.

Her father, too, gave up a more “creative” job as a painter or potter in order to make more money—but that money doesn’t seem to be for shoes and dinners out. Instead, what Smith’s father seems to have thought was important was “helping others” and supporting a family and having time to spend with them. Where her father’s goals are communal, directed toward his role in the lives of others, Smith’s goals are directed toward getting all of the “things” that she thinks will make her happy.

I certainly can’t say exactly what in life will make Smith feel fulfilled. But perhaps her father had more wisdom to impart than she was willing to receive. Our position within a larger community—a family, a neighborhood, a city, even the world—should inform our choices as much as our individual needs and desires. Expressing yourself creatively and making enough money to support yourself are both good things, but they will both ring a little hollow when considered in a void.

[Image of a 500 Dollar Bill from Wikipedia]

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