The Picture of Success

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.”
― Albert Einstein

Once upon a time if you asked me to describe my dream house I’d have given you a roof to basement description of a three level red brick colonial (inspiration via Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia) with a massive lawn and back garden. If it was historic, so much the better. Nowadays, rereading that description, my reaction is a low whistle and the thought, “That sounds like a lot of work!” Growing up a military brat we moved every few years and seldom owned a house. We also didn’t have to put in the effort of maintaining several of our homes as government support services often did so when we lived in base housings. Even when growing up I also had the idea that I wanted to continue to live abroad and travel–what on earth would I do with a massive house in that case!

Not only does the vision no longer really appeal, but more recently I’ve recognize that the idea of a grand house was something more of a symbol for me than an actual goal. In some corner of my mind, the idea had developed that if I were “successful,” that’s the kind of house I’d live in.

 photo Death_to_Stock_Equinox_1_zps3vuccarm.jpg
image via Death to the Stock Photo

We all have assumptions about, and unique frameworks for how we view personal success. Mine have shifted a bit over the years, and even now, having arrived in a relatively healthy place, I am constantly checking in with myself and my aspirations.

Jeff has a more financial view of success than I do, which makes a lot of sense to me. He works in and related to financial industries, there is a more traditional track of advancement in his line of work, and salary can be a good indicator of where a person is at in his or her career. It’s a simple but highly informative metric to him. On the other hand, I tend to think success in terms of achievement. This wasn’t always the case, when I was younger I framed the idea of success in certain status markers, like that big house I envisioned. I also used to  measure success by work I accomplish. On the surface this may sound much more zen than Jeff, but with my personality that can sometimes lead to bad health decisions (like burnout), hyper self criticism or other setbacks. I’ve done some pretty amazing things in terms of my writing, and yet some days (usually ones where pitches have been met with radio silence, I’ve lost a gig to a competitor, or I’m just feeling down about myself) I still have to remind myself that I’ve been able to support my family on writing for years, or achieved a byline that many can only dream of. Reframing success through the lens of achievement rather than how much work I’ve done in a given day has been a big breakthrough for me in the past year.

I’m open to the idea of my views shifting again in the future, goodness knows they’ve shifted in the past! I’d certainly like to make more money than I currently do, and perhaps shifting my mindset to a more quantifiable way of thinking for a time might be useful. I think it may even help me build the more long term financial mindset I’m working on. On the other hand, I think most of us have or know someone who has chased only money before and didn’t necessarily end up better off because of it.

What does success look like or mean to you?

3 thoughts on “The Picture of Success”

  1. To many people, we look unsuccessful — crappy old car, small apartment, no designer label clothes, no second (even 3rd) home, i.e. a house. Yet we have more $$ saved for retirement than almost anyone we know, and are thus not in the terrible panic many of our peers are — the ones with Big Fancy Jobs and huge houses and Ivy league educated children — who feel useless and rejected if they can’t constantly keep up with (or beat) their wealthy (often inherited $) peers.

    It costs a fortune to keep up with others who: save less, value material goods more, feel compelled to show off their income or status. Ignore all of these silly pressures. and you’re already ahead of the game.

    So, to me, success is very much individual: good health (lucky, often!); savings; good skills; true, intimate friendships; a loving partner or spouse. I had all the trappings of professional success by my mid-20s but was driven, lonely and exhausted by that hamster wheel.

    I share your definition — achievement. You’ve done a lot and will do much more.

  2. oh my god back during our middle school days (and well beyond), my dream home was basically Tara. a solid old whitewashed-brick home at the end of a half-mile-long driveway lined with giant magnolias on either side, and sweeping river views from the back, with a dock and a boathouse and lots of green lawn.

    not to say this isn’t still the dream, but only if and when i’m in a circumstance that allows me to pay others to do all the work, because right now, in my city house, i’m thrilled to pay others to take care of the (tiny, tiny) garden and choreograph the logistics of dusting the chandelier in the front hall rather than do it myself.

    all that aside, i’ve never really thought of success or goals in financial terms or career terms–i definitely define it in terms of the things i care about rather than general benchmarks we’re “supposed” to use. mainly my fiction, with everything else being pretty intangible.

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