Defining “Success”

In sixth grade, on one crisp Friday afternoon (or so my memory has led me to believe), my teacher informed my class that we were having a special visitor come in to teach us about finances and future career paths. In my young 11-year-old mind this loosely translated to, “no homework for the weekend!” The presenter could have spoken gibberish for all I cared, and I would have been more than satisfied. It turned out, he spoke English and even brought a few props along for the excursion as well. I remember very little from that day with the exception of one particular activity that stored itself deep in my memory. Minutes after his arrival, the presenter passed around blank cue cards and asked us to write down what we believed to be the definition of “success”. As we all tried to come up with some objective Marriam-Webster-approved description, we were told that one didn’t exist. “Success” was whatever we wanted it to be, as only we had the power to define it for ourselves. I don’t think our young rule-abiding minds quite understood the impact of that lesson until years later.

Letter and envelope Photo by Kate Macate from Unsplash From elementary school, we jump right into high school. Then from high school, we move directly into university, followed by that nine to five job we spent four years studying for. This is capitalism’s standardized, one-size-fits-all formula for triumph--a simplified equation that we are led to believe is synonymous with “happiness.” After 22 years of consecutive education, I feel as though I know very little about my identity beyond that of a student. Despite my newly-acclaimed knowledge of Canadian history spanning the last century, my ability to perform basic arithmetic, and my ability to describe the ideological theories of the main figures in psychology, I felt as though I knew very little about the real-world. Finances and taxes? The bare minimum. Performing household repairs? Don’t ask me. Cooking a meal that isn’t prepackaged at Walmart? I’d probably burn the kitchen down. Work-life balance and entrepreneurship? I’ve never before considered such things. Ignoring my slight exaggerations (emphasis on slight), it was only upon completing my undergrad degree that I began to question whether or not the career path I had loosely planned out at 17-years-old was even right for me anymore. You mean to say teenage me and 22-year-old me don’t want the same things? Wow, who would’ve thunk it?

Woman sitting by the river at sunset Photo by Toni Reed from Unsplash The truth is, I don’t quite know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I was afraid of choosing the wrong path while simultaneously feeling an inert need to apply for a postgraduate program in December. The unhealed perfectionist within me, molded by that capitalist formula for success, made me feel that it was somehow unacceptable to take a year off. Those same irrational voices believed that this one decision would set the course for the rest of my life, and rerouting was out of the question. These were the very thoughts that left me sweaty and panicked at five am every night. Although I consciously knew that taking a year off to explore my interests was more than okay, an inner sense of shame resided. I’d like to think I’m not alone in these experiences (or maybe I am and, in that case, please casually disregard the past 630 words). All I know for certain is that I am still in the midst of unlearning the shame associated with straying from the status quo.

man laying down covered in sticky notes Photo by Luis Villasmil from Unsplash There is no singular notion of what a “good life” is supposed to look like. There is no cookie-cutter recipe for the individual paths that we decide to embark on. When we learn to let go of, or mindfully accept, those feelings of guilt associated with slowing down in this fast-paced world, we can begin to discover what it is we want in life. Taking a year off, or more vaguely, coming to understand your own definition of success, may look like starting that side business you’ve been thinking about for the past year, working a part-time job and learning about investing, or maybe deciding it’s time to go to therapy. If all the external pressures were put on pause and you somehow found a way to stop criticizing yourself so harshly, what would you write on that blank cue card? What does success look like for you?