… there is no road, the road is made by walking. – Antonio Machado
Part of my job with Challenge Success involves speaking with groups of parents about student well-being and engagement in learning. Each workshop begins with a question: How do you define success? Specifically, if you imagine your child at 35 years old, what are the values, characteristics, and qualities that would indicate they have a successful life? It is always a rich discussion, and reveals that most of us want the same things for our children: meaningful and productive work, an ability to support themselves, loving relationships, health, kindness, satisfaction, and contribution to their communities and world. And yet, this broad definition of success runs counter to what we most often hear when we ask kids the same question. Their typical first responses? Wealth, and status. Extrinsic markers. Somehow, we are not communicating what we say we most care about.
I often fly to other parts of the state and country to facilitate these workshops and conversations. I typically don’t talk to people on the plane. As an introvert, I fear a trip-long conversation, and therefore tend to refrain from eye contact until the landing gear descends. But my seatmate on a recent flight to Los Angeles wanted to talk. She asked my name (Mary), where I live (the Bay Area), what type of work I do (Education). She then launched into her story. I took a deep breath, and wondered why, of all the seats on the plane, I’d picked this one. Fortunately, it turned out to be a lovely conversation, and she shared something in her story that gave me pause. Teresa (her name), was on her way to her granddaughter’s birthday party. As part of her narrative, she told me that four years ago, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, and that since then, she has had to relearn things, to gain patience, and in her own words “to redefine what success means.” According to Teresa, before her injury, she identified success with her professional life in the hospitality industry. Today, she defines success as getting through the day, finding energy and joy, and telling her husband of 41 years that she loves him.
Personally, I tend to think about success this way: life is not a straight line. Most people do not go from point A to point B to point C, all according to plan, and thereby achieve the golden ring, or happiness, or whatever. Life is messier, more complicated, and more surprising than that. A satisfied, meaningful, productive life can take a lot of forms, and there are a lot of ways to get there. The problem with this definition is that it still has an endpoint, something that is realized or achieved. A “there.”
Teresa told a more nuanced story. A broad definition of success is not just about valuing and being open to diverse pathways, choices, and types of contributions. A broad definition allows each of us, whatever our path and wherever it leads, to reframe what success means again and again throughout our lives. There is only so much we can control. When our careers advance (or don’t), relationships grow (or end), tragedy strikes, a new opportunity presents itself, illness befalls us or someone we love, or other circumstances alter, we need to revisit our core values, and align our definition of success accordingly.
Success, in the end, is how we live.