Have you thought much about your definition of success? I didn’t get to this for a long, long time. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized the definition of success is individual and has to be developed from your own experiences and desires. Prior to that I accepted the typical definition of success without thinking – education, good job, family, home, and financial security, but it still took me a long time to achieve that. I dropped out of college after 2 years and didn’t go back to complete my degree until 20 years later, I didn’t have a “good” job until I was well into my 30’s, I got divorced, I didn’t own a house until I was almost 40, and I didn’t have any sense of financial security until I was in my 50’s so, for most of my adult life, I didn’t meet the standard definition of success. In fact, I often felt like a failure because I compared myself to other people I knew and thought they were better than me. I finally learned that it is a big mistake to compare yourself to others because things can look good from the outside but none of us really knows what is going on inside someone else’s life. I’ll never forget the first time that really hit home with me. I was friendly with a couple whose marriage I had always admired and envied and then the wife confided that she was having an affair – and it wasn’t the first time. Another lesson about comparing myself to someone occurred when a man I knew professionally for years was charged with embezzling funds from the non-profit for which he was the CEO. He was a few years younger than me and I had envied his quick rise to “success”.
No one else can tell you if you are a success or not. Even if you followed the prescribed path to success and you’re making a lot of money and getting awards and accolades, you can still feel empty inside. Why is that? I think it goes back to self-love and following your inner compass. You have to figure out what has meaning to you and what makes you happy, regardless of what anyone else says. Recently it has occurred to me that the definition of success, like so many things, can change over the course of a lifetime. My decision to retire at 60 and take a decreased retirement income may not be considered a smart move by some people but it gave me personal freedom, which had become part of my new definition of success.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges in reinventing my life has been redefining success. When I retired I had no plan and knew only three things for sure. I knew I wanted to draw and write. I knew I wanted to keep my mind open to opportunities and experiences that would be meaningful to me and through which I could learn new things about myself and the world in which I live. I knew I wanted to take more time to just enjoy simple things like watching birds from my porch, walking with my dog, having the time to try new recipes, being able to lie on the sofa all afternoon reading a good book without the pressure of a schedule. It was difficult for me to stop thinking in terms of accomplishments and goals. I realized recently that even after 2 years I was still operating under some of the old standards of success by pressuring myself to be “productive” and feeling guilty if I didn’t do “enough” in a day. By whose definition?
My new definition of success is much smaller in scope than my old one – now it is defined only by the quality of each day. When I go to bed at night can I look back on the day and feel that I enjoyed whatever I did? Did I treat everyone with kindness (including myself)? Did I remember to be grateful for all the good in my life? If I can answer yes to those questions then I have had a successful day. I think this new definition will serve me well for the rest of my life. The truth is, no matter what phase of life you are in, you never have to meet any definition of success other than your own. If you have worked hard to achieve what you thought was success but you don’t feel happy and fulfilled, don’t lose heart because it’s never too late to reevaluate and make some changes. Maybe asking yourself my questions every night would be a good place to start.
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