Want Success? It Is Easier To Achieve When You Redefine It

Jeffrey Keefer

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Did you see how Tom Brady led his team to yet another Super Bowl win? How about how spectacular Lady Gaga was with the National Anthem during the Inauguration? How about how Elon Musk almost seemed surprised at reaching his successful spot as the richest man in the world?

It can be easy to see these people who achieved enormous success and wish we could be like them. We all want success, so what better model is there than by looking at those who have achieved it and comparing ourselves to them?

Really? Is it realistic to compare myself to Tom Brady, Lady Gaga, or Elon Musk? Is it even a fair comparison?

When we say we wish we could be like them, we generally mean it is easy to wish we had their success, for that is what we see in them. However, not one of them started off that way, and not one of them quickly manifested their success, as if through magic or divine providence. They came from different places and built themselves from their experiences, yet they all share one thing in common.

Success does not mean the same thing for everybody.

Success Comes Through Effort

When we see people at the height of success, using whatever criteria we deem fundamental to determining success, none of it happens by magic. It occurs through effort, pushing beyond limits, and always believing it can be done. There are pitfalls along the way, yet those who are most successful are those who are most able to learn from their stumbles and adapt based on how they shift their goals.

We each start at different places, based on family, early education, genetics, and various components that make us, us. Many people will come down on one side or the other of the overall nature-vs-nurture argument, namely, how much of who we are right now is based on what we started with (good genes, internal drive, race or ethnicity, etc.) compared to what we have grown into (some through efforts beyond ourselves such as our family's capacity to help us get started, our connections along the path, etc.). I think strong arguments can be made for all sorts of external influences and personal-successes, and I am certainly not going to end this ongoing debate.

What I will contribute is a slightly different perspective on this--does it matter with what we started with or who helped us? I mean, I know it can make things easier, but it guarantees little. There are few guarantees in life at all. For everybody born wealthy who never learned internal strength or discipline, there are many activities to move into a life of external success.

My contribution is this--there is no single definition of success, and as a result, it always comes to us internally of what we perceive as a success for us. As a result, it is always a personal decision as to what we choose to do to move us to a place of success.

Let Me Share a Personal Story

Many people in my early life perceived success as having a good job, and by a good job, they meant one that made lots of money. Lots of money is undoubtedly a relative concept, though more about that later. The amount was never the clear focus, but having the job title carried all the effects that somehow made for the success. In simple terms, this meant becoming a lawyer, doctor, or accountant. I grew up in a small, somewhat rural part of the country, and the kids in school whose families had money all seemed to come from those three professions. It was undoubtedly more complicated, though when we are younger, complexities get flattened into simple frames of reference from which we make our meanings.

The emphasis was basically, "Become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant (i.e., money professional), and you will be set for life." Overly simplistic, eh?

Anyway, that is what I grew up hearing. As my family struggled financially (an understatement, that is), the goal was always on simplistic work titles and not on anything else. Happiness, family, contributions to society, advocacy for others--none of those were mentioned as they would not lead to lifetime success. The one quality that was mentioned in how to achieve this, the only way for me in a socio-economically struggling family to accomplish this, was through education. Thankfully, studying and academic discipline made sense to me. It was something within reach. I lived in a remote area, and there was absolutely nothing else to do beyond reading for pleasure and escape while also doing my schoolwork and studying.

We Make Our Own Success

I could not explain it at the time, yet looking back, I can now name education as the one opportunity I embraced to build my path to success. When in a financially challenged family who did not have the wherewithal to afford the first step toward success, I had my public school. I had the public library. I had the promise that there was so much more beyond the walls and perspectives that I felt confined me, or at least did not give me much tangible when trying to move toward success. The overly-simplistic, and many may argue the unreasonably-privileged notion of the American Dream, advancement through hard work and determination, is all I had.

I did not have family connections, family savings, or even family education and culture to start me out. I had the vision that only through education could I learn enough to do whatever I had to do to move forward.

Mine is certainly not the story of those who began well or had initial opportunities that made a successful path more a sure thing. While many who start with a so-called leg-up have an advantage, it is never a guarantee they will go far or even learn to be independent.

When growing up, I learned that success is not contained in a title, and success is not something that has a universal definition or path. Looking at professional athletes, performers, or entrepreneurs does not equate to success. It is not fair to me to compare myself to those who chose other paths or had different ways started by their families on their behalf. We have what we have, and we can only choose what we do with it as we move through life. Money in itself is an easy quantitative indicator of success, though, in itself, it may not prove or disprove anything. It does not bring satisfaction, happiness, or even self-respect.

Success Is a Frame of Mind

So this is what I learned along the way--success is a frame of mind. It does not involve job titles, money, or anything external. It involves how I feel about myself.

This is certainly nothing I could have articulated when I was younger when this approach would not have been possible given my family.

So, how do you define success in your own life, and are you being fair or realistic to yourself in it?

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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