Our culture is obsessed with success stories. We love a good rags to riches tale, an American Idol who came from nowhere and rose to the top can move millions to cast their votes, and we teach our kids they can become whatever they want to be if they just work hard enough. The dark inverse of this “meritocratic” societal belief, as writer/philosopher Alain de Botton infers in a fascinating TED talk, is that we must think those who are at the bottom are there because they deserve to be. When success as defined by status, fame and riches is perceived to be attainable by all, the stakes of failure become higher. We become “losers” if we try and fail. We become envious that others are able to achieve their dreams while we somehow cannot.
This puts enormous pressure on those pursuing their passions to succeed. David Sedaris says if your life is a stove with four burners for family, friends, health, and work, you have to cut off at least one of the burners in order to be successful. Throw kids into the mix and the dreams feel even further out of reach. Ayelet Waldmen expresses this well in an essay in her book Bad Mother in which she says she feels lied to by the feminists of the ’70s who taught her she could “have it all”, a family and the career of her dreams. Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet that “the various pressures of twentieth-century living have made it impossible for the young mother with pre-school children to have any solitude. During the long years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict.” I relate to her frustration and her quip that none of the great artists would have qualified for a mental health certificate (much less a Parent of the Year award). This sentiment was reflected in a recent article at the99% about Chris Guillebeau from the Art of Non-Conformity. He says, “Balanced people don’t usually change the world. Something’s gotta give and it’s up to each of us to determine what that’s going to be and how we’re going to allocate our energy.”
Since my return to working everyday, these ideas have all been warring in my head with the emotions of missing my baby, and longing for more time to pursue writing and other creative ventures. Botton’s assertions that you cannot have it all, that there is no such thing as work/life balance, and that you have to accept loss in some areas were causing despair to set into this perfectionistic over-achiever’s heart. His only hope came in urging everyone to define for themselves what a successful life is. This theme also appeared in the book I just posted about by Summer Pierre, when she suggests answering “what does the good life look like for you specifically“?
It was an excellent practice for me to think through what my ideal of “success” would look like. Status, fame and riches are nowhere near the top of my definition of success. I found an alternative definition from another TED talk by John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” I love that. It’s only measured by me, not what anyone else thinks.
When I look back on my life so far, I am satisfied that I have accomplished everything of which I was capable. I could only define success in relation to what I knew at the time, so it has changed and expanded. When I was young, it was simply to make better choices than my parents – to stay sober, to not get pregnant too young, to go to college. When I went to college, I had no idea what else I wanted to achieve, so I decided to become the highest and best career I had been exposed to and emulated a beloved teacher, becoming a high school art teacher at the age of 21. Then, as I saw more of the world through travel, I realized there was so much more I might want to do, and that I wasn’t ready to teach yet. Success at various stages since then have meant pursuing a relationship with God, working on a harmonious marriage, learning to cope with anxiety, starting my own businesses, becoming financially stable, and lately, being the best mama I can be. When I look back to where I started, instead of feeling envious of where I see other people I admire, I can be proud of the choices I’ve made, and know I can go on to achieve whatever I set my mind to do.
The fact that I even have space for this desire to achieve something new is a function of my previous successes. I am building on the balance I have worked so hard to create, and I do believe I can have it all. I don’t have to turn off the burner of my health or my family to make room for creating art. I have already started ruthlessly weeding out other things that waste my precious time. In addition, it might mean turning off the TV or the Internet more often. Maybe it means a little less sleep (now that Little Man is almost a year old and sleeping well, this is an option again). I don’t have to achieve all my dreams at once, but if I can break them down into small pieces and work on them a little bit every day, I will define that as success at this stage of my life.
(On another note, I started this blog nearly two years ago, and it has been as scattered as my mind was through this time. It has been a place for me to vent, to try out various forms of writing from mommyblogging to travel journalism, and to post my art work. I have a new vision for it now. A more focused approach that I’m really excited about. Expect big changes in the blog and my website over the next few weeks. Prepare to be inspired. Nothing is going to stop me from having it all, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.)