What is success? Thankfully, the rules have changed.


What is success?

Growing up in a small town, some 20+ years ago, had you asked me to define success in terms of being a student, I likely would have answered it in this way, and in this order:

What is success, A+

  1. Academics– getting good grades, taking harder classes, getting into a good college.
  2. School Athletics– making the school’s team, excelling at a sport(s), winning the game.
  3. Music– achieving a certain “seat” in the school band, having a starring role in the musical, getting the solo in choir.

But now as a parent of 3 sons, and having spent the last 9 years watching them navigate our little corner of the world, I have a much less concise and much less outwardly defined answer to the “what is success” question.

(And if I’m being totally honest, I sincerely hope that my sons’ definition of success would be much different than how I described it above as well.)

The question: “What is success?” Redefined.

The rules of success have changed. And while I’m not sure if it’s a generational/societal change, or simply a change in my own mindset, either way, I am grateful for the mental shift.

What’s changed in the last 20+ years? Why isn’t “success” for a student as clearly defined for me now, as a parent? I can point to 3 main things have definitively shifted my perspective over the last 2 decades.

#1 There are an insane number of ways to be “successful.”

Thankfully, gloriously, the world is much bigger than my childhood, small-town view. Kids can find “success” in TONS of other things instead of, or in addition to, academics, school sports, and school music programs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those things.) Call it a blessing or a curse, there is an endless amount of activities available today in and out of school – scouts, theater, martial arts, volunteerism, book clubs, to name just a few – that make for a similar endless amount of ways to find and define success.

No doubt, helping a child explore, discover, and express his/her talents and passions in or out of school is a pretty awesome feeling as a parent.

But even with all these different activities at which kids can be “successful,” there’s an even better reason why my childhood definition of success is in question.

#2 Being the “best” at something doesn’t inherently and singularly define “success.”

Sometimes (or maybe most times) “success” isn’t about being the best at something at all.

To me now, it’s about doing our best, getting out of our comfort zone, taking a chance, trying something new, and maybe most of all, getting up when we fall and trying again.

In fact, allowing success to be much more open and individually defined gives us the chance to celebrate small wins along the way. It allows room for everyone, not just those at the “top,” to feel successful, which is much more true to how I want to live. And quite frankly, it just plain feels better.

In my parent version, and the one I hope my sons would define, I might argue now that “success” can mean:

  • getting up to bat after striking out
  • being super nervous, but still nailing your 2 lines in the school play
  • working your tail off and bringing your C paper up to a B+
  • allowing the artwork that took hours to create to be on display in the school hall
  • showing up to school after being made fun of on the bus
  • sticking up for a friend even if others did not
  • knowing there was no chance of winning the race, but lining up at the start anyway

what is success? going back up to bat after striking outThere are so many ways, big and small, publicly recognized or not, that we parents can help our children celebrate “successes” that go way beyond any formal award, certificate, rank, or win.

#3 Stop letting other people’s standards define the answer to the question “what is success?”

The 3 standards of success I mentioned in the beginning were, undoubtedly, defined by the culture of my town, the norm of my school environment, and the passed-down ideas of the generation before. They were rooted in the question “what will people think?” and defined by standards others had set.

But I see now that they are only one way of defining success.

With my own children and my own life, for that matter, I’m ready to break-free from the hold of “what will people think?” when it comes to defining success.

I’m ready to stop the comparisons game, allow myself and my boys the freedom to define what success means for each one of us, in this moment or for this year. Striving for success based on other people’s standards is often rooted in a need for validation. But here’s the thing. Achieving success on someone else’s terms doesn’t make for long-term happiness.

Rather, when we start from a place of knowing we are whole and complete as we are, without the need for validation from others, we can strive for success by our own definition, without regard to what others may think.

For example, by allowing “success” to be about playing an instrument because of a passion for music, not defined by the number seat in the band, we can foster a life-long love of pursuing our passions. Or, by allowing “success” in chess club to be about trying a new strategy and facing head-on a sure-fire loss, rather than focus on winning the tournament, we can foster a life-long confidence to step out of our comfort zone and face tough situations.

Allowing success to be defined as working hard, showing up, having passion, and playing a good game allows winning, rank, and recognition to be a by-product of success, not the the end goal.

That is the kind of success I want to promote for myself and for my children.

And that’s how I hope my sons will answer the question “what is success” 20+ years from now.