declaring success: it's what you make it

I am excited to have my voice join others like Kellie Rae Roberts this week declaring our success as part of The Declaration of You Blog Lovin Tour. The tour is a celebration of the publication of The Declaration of You, published by North Light Craft Books and available now. I took one of the first TDOY courses, where I "met" Jessica and Michelle and other participants as we worked through exercises, prompts, wrestled with ideas all culminating for me into a deeper understanding of myself, about what I wanted from my life and helped me to better define my dreams. The book evolved out of those courses and gives readers the opportunity and permission to discover how they and their gifts are unique and uncover what they are meant to do! This post is part of The Declaration of You's BlogLovin' Tour, which I'm thrilled to participate in alongside over 200 other creative bloggers. Learn more -- and join us! -- by clicking here."

One of my most strongly held beliefs is that words are infinitely powerful. They define and shape us, and our thoughts about the world. Language roots us and thus, the ways in which we describe the world matter. 

What's nice about language is that it evolves. As our understanding and vocabulary and experiences grow, we can re-define and re-examine the stories we tell. The older I get, the more I seek to re-define previously held ideas, particularly around the ways I define and describe success.  

I was lucky to grow up with fantastic women raising me. My great-grandmother Jones worked in the shipyards, welding; she also sold shoes and other odd jobs before deciding she wanted to become a nurse. At an age when many women were looking toward retirement, she was just beginning a career. At one point, my grandmother (her daughter) was her boss! I write a lot about my paternal grandmother's influence on my life and I have no doubt that my Granny helped to nurture Gran's independent, driven spirit. My maternal grandmother was a schoolteacher; her sisters helped one another pay for college in a time when many women were not thinking about higher education. My mother went back to school to get a Master's degree when I was in junior high. She commuted over an hour a few nights a week for years. I remember going to the university library with her, mesmerized by all of the knowledge at her fingertips. When she graduated, the pride on her face made me very proud. The women in my family do things on their terms. The way they lived set an example for me, a belief that I could determine for myself what my life would look like. 

But of course, these women are not the only voices in my life. So many people in so many places tell you what success looks like. School, television, books, films, other people's cars, houses, etc. Because I enjoyed being a bit on the outside, and because I never stayed in one town for very long, I was able, for a while, to carve my own understanding of what being successful looked like.  

It looked like:  

doing what made you happy
making (at least some) of your own rules
understanding what you were good at
taking credit for your hard work
being proud 

For the most part, my parents never pushed a particular ideal of success. They encouraged my efforts in school and when I was recognized as part of the honor roll, or spelling bee, or math team or speech team or other kinds of events, they were pleased for me, but it wasn't as though they pushed it onto me nor did I feel like I HAD to do these things. When I wanted to quit piano or the clarinet, I did not feel like a failure and they did not make me feel guilty for not wanting to take lessons anymore.  

Even applying to college was relatively pressure-free. In the end, I made the choice on my own and I never got the sense that my parents were disappointed with it. I certainly wasn't. 

During my Ph.D. success became tied to very specific outcomes. I felt a great deal of pressure, maybe from myself, but also from peers and professors. In academia, in general, there is a belief that success = tenure, which means publications, committee work, accolades in the field and then repeat for promotions. As a graduate student then, you are working toward completing coursework, exams, dissertation research, the dissertation itself, and a defense alongside making yourself marketable so you can get that job and then tenure and then achieve success, except you need success for tenure. (Yeah, it's a tangled mess.) Even if you want to resist this narrative of success and carve your own path, it is incredibly difficult to ignore what everyone is telling you. 

I think there is a significant opportunity for academics right now to redefine the models that are not working. And if you read anything about education these days, you know that there seems to be a great deal that is broken about the current systems in which we operate. I strongly believe that our definitions of success could be reframed and should be, both in terms of our students but also our professional lives.  

In the past five years, I have realized that my impulse as a kid to define success for myself was right. I charted much of my struggle with not living up to a specific kind of ideal, and the ways in which I failed myself and my students in several posts throughout 2010-2011. I lamented the loss of my muchness. I felt lost, untethered, and scared.

One of the reasons I have become so drawn to nautical metaphors in the past three years is a story I have told before about a night I woke up with a voice in my head so strong and loud, I thought someone was in the room. The voice said, "You will not sink." 
It was something I needed to believe and words I return to whenever I am anxious about how something is going to turn out. 

The world is uncertain and changeable, exciting and sometimes terrifying. I go back to Seneca, "even to live is an act of courage."  

Every day we receive messages about what success means, what it looks like, what it should feel like, and sometimes those messages resonate and other times they don't. Because words are so incredibly powerful, I believe it is important to declare for yourself what success means for you. Maybe it changes depending on the situation, and it probably should. Success is not only for our professional lives. (Boy, is that a lesson I learned the past few years!) Think about success in relationships, in volunteer work, in your personal goal-setting and determine for you what success means.  

Here's my declaration about success:  

My success does not have to look like anyone else's, in fact, it probably should not because it is my own, specific to my goals, my hopes, and my dreams. Success will inevitably include failure, because it will involve trying something new and taking risks. For me success will be based on my own happiness. If am proud of how I have treated people, if I have tried to do better today than yesterday, if I have showed up as my best self, then I have achieved success in whatever I am doing.  

Notice that success is not tied to one specific outcome. Notice that success includes not succeeding and risk. Notice that is on my terms and connected to my happiness. I don't mean that success = happiness, rather that when I am happy with work I have done, or how my relationships are growing then I feel successful.  

The incredibly wonderful and wise Maya Angelou says,  "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and how you do it."

I don't think it's fair to judge ourselves by other's standards, or to compare our success to others. As Lindsey reminds us, "there is room for everyone." Of course, there are times in our professions when we need to meet certain goals or complete certain tasks and go through particular channels in particular ways, but I don't think those standards should be only ways we determine our success.  

If words shape our lives then we can reshape them with language, too. Or at least try. What is your declaration of success? What are the mantras, the words of your heart, your markers for determining how you have succeeded?