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What does success look like?
There are limitations of comparing yourself to you.
Of all the damaging expectations in our society, one that particularly bothers me is the idea that things should always be on an upward trajectory.
We expect ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, to consistently level-up because that’s what we see everywhere we look—especially those of us living in the United States. We watch businesses and billionaires make more and more money, year after year. We witness our peers land new jobs and take on bigger projects at work. We follow friends and strangers alike on social media, as they have more kids, move into larger homes, and travel to new places.
This upward trajectory is proof of capitalist progress. It’s what success looks like.
Prior to 2017, my life fit nicely on that upward path. After I graduated college, I landed a job at a giant news organization, where I earned a promotion and bump in salary every two to three years. Around that same time, I got married, adding another year of happy marriage as each September rolled around to my list of accomplishments. My husband and I adopted a dog, with plans to grow our family in other ways later on. We traveled often, hosted large parties, and had a vibrant circle of friends. By 25, I was a homeowner. By 30, I owned two homes—one in Atlanta, which we rented out, and one in Florida, where we’d recently moved.
The move to Florida was a bit of an anomaly—my new job meant a tiny cut in salary—but it also meant more opportunities to travel and take on bigger work projects. I co-founded a popular leadership program, started a newsletter that had thousands of readers in its first year alone, and spoke at multiple conferences. By all accounts, I was a Successful Person.
Then, my husband died. At the tender age of 31, my upward trajectory came to a crashing halt.
We all know the pitfalls of comparing ourselves to others. It’s a thief of joy, a surefire way to feel bad about where you’re at in life. Life coaches and inspirational speakers encourage people instead to compare themselves to themselves. As psychotherapist and author Amy Morin says, “The only person you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday.”
I get this advice. On some level, I agree with it. But when I view myself through society’s lens of success, the comparison to past me isn’t necessarily a favorable one.
Here’s a list of ways I am “less successful” than I was before:
I make much less money. The freelance salary I make now is similar to what I was making almost a decade ago.
I live in a smaller house than I’ve lived in before.
I’m not (yet) married, and don’t have double-digit years of anniversaries to celebrate.
I don’t have a fancy job title and rarely get invitations to work conferences.
I hardly ever post on social media. When I do, it’s to share a mundane life update, not an exotic trip or exciting announcement.
Looking at that list, you might expect me to feel pretty down about the path my life has taken. Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, when I introduce myself to someone new or remember what my old life was like, I can’t help but feel a bit insecure.
For the most part, though, I don’t care. I might be less successful by society’s standards, but given my own measure of success—a hard-to-quantify, totally subjective assessment of my happiness and stress levels—I feel pretty damn good about where I’m at in life.
Here’s a list of things I feel great about:
I work for myself, setting my own hours and schedule.
I am a mom to an amazing little girl who’s teaching me endless new ways to look at life.
I’m in a wonderful relationship, one that requires an incredible amount of patience and understanding.
I have survived losing my dad, my husband, and my mind, and I’m still standing.
I write this newsletter (one that isn’t as widely read as my past endeavor, but gives me great fulfillment all the same).
I live much closer to my family, am getting to know my neighbors, and have a solid circle of support.
I make time to go on one long walk a day, read a book every week, and get seven or eight hours of sleep each night.
I am no longer exhausted by trying to aim for the next big thing—or prove my worth and relevance to others.
When we view others’ successes, we tend to ignore the cost of that upward movement. All we see are the impressive profit margins, the big job announcements, and the beautiful family photos. We don’t see the employees who were laid off to keep stockholders happy, the added work that comes with that new position, or the stressful moments leading up to that picture-perfect snapshot.
Every success comes with a cost. But those costs are usually hidden.
When I consider my life today, a lot of the big choices I made—to be a freelancer, to move closer to family, to ignore social media—are ones where I carefully weighed the costs. I chose happiness over success. I decided to stop worrying so much about what other people might think of me.
I don’t think past me would have chosen this path. She was too comfortable on her tidy upward trajectory. She didn’t deeply consider the costs of that life: the chronic jaw pain from stress, the endless hours of work, the exhausting travel, the social calendar that was too packed to fully enjoy it.
Looking back, I see all of the ways that success ate away at me. Once you get knocked off course, you can’t help but view things from a brand new perspective.
In a few weeks, I’ll turn 37. It’s not surprising to me, then, that I’m musing about this topic. Every April, I wind up thinking about where I’m at in life versus where I expected to be.
This year, though, feels different. I’m reflecting on the same topic, but doing it in a much calmer and more accepting way. I’m looking at my life choices with curiosity instead of panic. I’m happy with where I’m at.
Perhaps this is the gift of growing older.
In society’s view, success looks like climbing a mountain—reaching higher and higher heights at all costs. For me, success is taking a different route, one that allows me to meander, enjoy the scenery, and not push myself too hard. Some days, the path is strenuous—lord knows I thrive on hard work—but many other days, it’s a moderate hike, one with peaks, valleys, and plenty of room to rest.
I like this path a lot better.
p.s. What does success look like for you? Are you at a place in life where you expected to be? Why or why not? How does reflecting on success make you feel? I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. If I hear back from enough of you, I’ll put together a special version of this newsletter featuring readers’ wisdom.