The Meaning of Success

Definitions are important. It’s something you learn right off the bat in debate classes. You must define your terms. Some words have universally accepted definitions, but for some words, the definition changes depending on the situation or the individual.

When I went off to college, I had a vague notion that I wanted to “be successful”— both during my college years and afterwards.

Unfortunately, I had not taken the time to define that notion, and I really didn’t have the slightest idea what that meant to me, except I was pretty sure it included making straight As like I had done throughout most of my previous school years.

I picked an extremely challenging major at a large, competitive university, and armed with nothing but that vague notion of success, headed off into my first semester, which included classes like Biology I, Calculus, Psychology, and Composition and Rhetoric.

I had never taken notes from a lecture, and I had never sat in an impersonal class of 300. I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what studying was, though I thought it probably had something to do with spending a huge amount of time looking at notes I didn’t understand and worrying a whole heck of a lot.

I was too proud and independent to ask for help, and besides, I didn’t actually have any previous experience with that sort of behavior.

Throw in the rest of the emotional rollercoaster that many college freshmen face, like homesickness, managing my own schedule and finances, figuring out a balance of fun and work, making new friends, having non-family roommates, dating, extracurriculars, and disastrous eating and sleeping habits, and it was a train wreck waiting to happen.

I did manage to make one A that first semester, but since my entire fuzzy definition of success hung on the one premise that success was defined by ALL As, I felt like a gigantic failure.

As my second semester approached, with classes like Biology II, Chemistry I, Texas History, and a Math class I can’t remember the name of, I vowed to “study harder” and “be more serious.”

My understanding of note taking, studying, and asking for help had not really changed, but I figured my new resolve to “be successful” would carry me through and win the day.

At the end of the semester, I was again shocked and dismayed that my transcript didn’t reveal all As, which was the only way I had even imagined to define success. There were a couple of As, but I managed to mostly ignore those and focus only on the other letters of the alphabet littering my transcript.

And so it went for the next three years of college.

With practice and experience, I did get better at note taking, studying, and asking for help, but I never got to the point of coming up with a solid definition for success, and I never celebrated (or even noticed) the small victories along the way.

I only seemed to register what success wasn’t. Though I had a good number of As on my final transcript and an overall 3.0 average, I did not have ALL As, and I therefore considered myself a failure. My confidence was shattered, and I felt paralyzed.

For years, I maintained a very fuzzy definition of success. I just knew I wanted to “be successful,” but I didn’t know what that meant.

A particular dollar figure? A certain number of people helped? A quantifiable amount of praise? The problem was the all-or-nothing approach I had set myself up for so many years ago. I wasn’t counting ANY successes because I wasn’t having ALL the successes.

There was no amount of money or praise or helping that could make me feel like I had accomplished something because the deepest habit of my heart was to disregard anything that wasn’t everything.

In the last few years, I’ve started to see that it’s ok to count the little successes. Actually, it’s imperative.

There is no all-or-nothing success in real life.

The only real success is tied up in every little unquantifiable, unexceptional thing: I went for a run; I cooked dinner; I was kind to a stranger; I made my bed; I obeyed the traffic laws; I voted.

There are bigger things, too: I taught a child to read; I explained grammar and writing concepts to a classroom full of kids; I delivered a hot meal and a smile to a homebound elderly person; I published a book (or six); I have been married to my husband for almost 20 years.

Success is a difficult thing to define. It is even more difficult to quantify.

It’s intensely personal and looks different for every person.

There isn’t a dollar amount and there aren’t enough pats on the back to ever equal “success.”

Success is looking at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and acknowledging that you did the best you could with what you had.

It’s deciding you are going to keep working on the things you felt like you didn’t get right.

It’s knowing you did what you believed was right for yourself and your family, regardless of cultural, familial, political, or any other kind of pressure.

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