Way Better Idea of Success than Money and Status

A friend of mine posted this article from On Being, called “Scrapping Outdated Definitions of Success” by Courtney Martin.

This really resonated with me as my husband and I have been navigating career moves recently trying to produce a happier household.

The cultural narrative overshadows us all, to the extent that we buy into it: you will be successful if you can go beyond your parents’ earnings and their collar.

The rub is that it’s simply not true.

Bigger earnings don’t always translate into a better life, as evidenced by the preponderance of miserable lawyers, doctors, sales managers, and investment bankers. The trusty old collar metaphor turns out to be dangerously reductive, as was so beautifully discussed in Krista Tippett’s recent interview with Mike Rose.

As the tectonic plates of work shift under our feet, there’s a palpable sense of professional insecurity. On the flip side, there’s a real opportunity to tell the truth in a moment when we don’t have as much to lose. If we successfully scrap outdated definitions of success — salaries and collars, foremost among them — what’s left?

Here’s my attempt at synthesizing what I see among my friends, family, colleagues, and co-housing community. We want to be paid enough to live without the specter of an empty bank account or an empty cupboard hanging over our heads. We want to have access to childcare for our children and doctors for our aging parents. We want work that demands something of our minds and our bodies; we want to think and move. We want to feel like our gifts, whatever weird and wonderful things those might be, are put to good use (which first requires knowing what they hell they are). We want to work alongside other people who see and celebrate those gifts, people who teach us things, people who want to make cool stuff with us, people who are kind and mostly good and don’t create a lot of unnecessary drama. We want to be treated fairly. We want to be trusted, to know how and when and where we do our best work. We want to wake up in the morning and feel like there is a place to direct our energy and that place, while it may not define us, dignifies us.

Then, there was this:

In any case, women tend to walk around with an itchy, un-lived version of their own lives.

Carl Jung wrote:

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

Martin sites this quotation both in relation to moms with careers and stay at home moms, that either way, in the past there has been a sense that something must be lost: that working women may have unfulfilled lives with their children and also that stay-at-home women may wonder about their creative potential or gifts. This is certainly a pressing question that feminism has wrestled with again and again with no good outcome.

I myself addressed it earlier this year and concluded that somehow, it must be possible to use and develop our gifts and to nurture our children well–both for women and men, though both make a great many sacrifices. I penned a similar thought to Martin:

Unfortunately, our standard of “success” is usually public recognition or the number of zeros in a paycheck. The standard should be though a happy, purposeful life.

This Jung quote struck me though as a powerful reminder that wherever we struggle for fulfillment, it really does matter, both to us and to our families, whether it’s wanting to be with children more or develop our gifts more. We are actually better parents when we find balance and take care of ourselves, which looks different for different people and even for husbands and wives. But the shared truth is that by attempting to suppress any good and real part of our beings, something is lost and our children feel that too.

It is worth adding that may people live through difficult circumstances and do not always the chance to strive in both or either of these areas. Compassion and aid to these people is a must, for our happiness and success as individuals is not unrelated to the success and happiness of our neighbors. And it’s simple decency. But it is not selfish to seek sustainable, healthy development in all areas of life. As I’ve cited before. this quote from Pope John Paul II sums it up:

“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.”
— Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
Question then: what does success mean to you?
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