As I move through middle age, I find myself contemplating success and what makes a successful life.
When I am not careful, I start comparing my path to those of my peers, friends, and family. Using the societal measuring stick of accumulation of wealth, marriage, and kids, my life does not measure up real well.
So I remind myself to put down the societal measuring stick, for the only one that counts is the measuring stick with my name on it.
Using my own measure of success, I can then recall my accomplishments and triumphs, my goals and values, and I remind myself that this is my journey. I am the only one qualified to decide if I have been successful.
It is up to me to decide what I want my life to look like, feel like, and be. The things that our society values most can come with a high price tag. Power, prestige, and fortune require lots of time, effort, and sacrifice in other areas of life.
Finding the Right Measure of Success
There is a great documentary about backup singers called 20 Feet from Stardom. The documentary looks at the music industry, how backup singers came to be, their evolution through different musical decades and it asks the question, “why didn’t these extraordinary performers become the next Tina Turner or Madonna?”
What struck me most while watching it was that no one ever posed the theory that they were already successful. That being a backup singer is actually a successful career.
Why were we holding the societal measuring stick of fame and fortune to each of these women and finding that didn’t measure up? I am certain there are more than enough backup singers that do indeed want to be the next Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, but not every singer wants that level of success.
Each person has a path that they came to pursue. Each path is unique. Success on our path requires that we learn to hear our own voice. Listening too closely to other people’s advice about our path can distort our perception and expectations.
Back to the documentary, one woman, in particular, is universally recognized for her talent, she is a sensational singer. She loves to create music and harmonies as a member of a group.
She created a career where her contribution as a backup singer is valued and cherished, and she gets to bring something no one else can to the table. Collaborating with various musicians create a work of art and she achieves worth and value from her unique place in the whole.
This woman is Lisa Fischer, she has been the lead female vocalist with the Rolling Stones for every US tour since 1989. She has toured or done session work with Luther Vandross, Sting, Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, now that is some range.
During this documentary you see her musing about her life and happiness, she reflects “I think about my friends’ who are married and have kids and I wonder maybe I should have done that…” she starts laughing, “Nah, I’m good, I’m good.”
Other singers posit about why Fischer never made a second solo album, despite having won a Grammy for her first, “Lisa doesn’t have that drive that you need to make it in a solo career. That ego.” And Lisa herself says, of the second album that never was, “it just took too long.”
What is captured in these explanations is how we struggle to justify our choices when those choices go against what society measures as success–married with children and a powerful, demanding job that makes lots of money.
We can struggle, believing that we are not living up to our potential. Perhaps we are absolutely living up to our potential and our aims are not too low, they are just not glorified in our status-conscious world.
Our culture rewards wild ambition, fame and monetary success–particularly young success, but what if that is not what you are here to achieve? What if that makes you feel bad both physically and mentally?
Not everyone can be famous, for the sheer numbers would cheapen the whole concept of fame. However, we can all be enormously successful. Only first, we need to open our definition of success.
Redefining success for ourselves–individually, personally–not what it means to the world, our friends, our family, our mentor. Only our definition matters on our path, we hold the only measure of success that is accurate for our journey.
This is an alternative measure of success…
“We will discover the nature of our particular genius when we stop trying to conform to our own or to other people’s models, learn to be ourselves, and allow our natural channel to open.” ~ Shakti Gawain
Work that is fulfilling
Do you enjoy the work you do? Does it bring you happiness and/or fulfillment? Most of us spend the majority of our time working, whether that work is accounting or child rearing, I want to encourage you to enjoy it. Some people may have chosen the wrong path because let’s face it, 18 is quite young to make such important decisions.
If this is the case for you, I encourage you to explore your options again. It really is never too late to start again. We only get one life, do something that matters to you.
If you actually like what you do but notice that you aren’t enjoying it, I encourage you to allow yourself to be joyful about it.
This is an important point, we often feel out of place being happy with our work because complaining is so ubiquitous in the workplace. We feel odd being happy or content when others are complaining. “Who am I to actually enjoy myself,” we think.
Joy and happiness are something to spread and celebrate, it is too precious in life for us to talk ourselves out of it, and too many of us do that. So if you are hanging around with people who are unhappy with their jobs and you actually like yours, consider finding some new friends.
Equal exchange of energy
Does the time and energy you exchange for your paycheck or compensation feel commensurate? At the end of the day, we want to feel valued and appreciated for what we do. We want our boss, co-workers (spouse) to be pleased with our contribution and pay or reward us accordingly.
This isn’t about everyone becoming millionaires, it is about feeling valued, not coming home at the end of the week feeling resentful. The amount of output should feel comparable to the input/income we receive in exchange. Where does energy exchange rate on your measure of success?
Do you feel your job supports your values and ethics? Do you know what you value most? The day in, day out sacrifice of what we hold most dear takes a tremendous toll on us. The dissonance of living out of sync with our values creates stress and long-term stress leads to illness and disease.
Find a vocation that is in alignment with your core values, life is too short to hate yourself. No amount of money, prestige, or benefits is worth betraying yourself. Especially if you are a highly sensitive person or empath, that price is much too high to pay.
Are you able to fit your job into your life; family, friends, and activities? Is your job your life, or a part of your life? Even if your work is a really important part, we all need more than just work to sustain us and make us happy.
And work/life balance is probably the quintessential struggle of our society. It is probably safe to say that we all continually aspire to find balance through conscious acts of honoring our limits and meeting our needs.
Make time for yourself, your friends, and your family, but start with yourself–self-care isn’t selfish, it is mandatory. You can’t be there for your work, friends or family if you aren’t able to take care of yourself and meet your own core needs first.
Integrity, Happiness, and Balance are the New Stick
This measure of success strives to support our authentic self. It encourages meaning and happiness while honoring our natural talents and limitations.
The younger generations in the workforce are actively seeking careers that bring greater fulfillment in these areas of life. They are seeking careers that provide better balance and greater joy and this is changing the workplace and will continue to do so.
Meaning, happiness, and cultural fit were not highly valued by previous generations who were shaped by the Great Depression and The Cold War. But we are changing as a society and our definition and measure of success can change too.