With my thirty-second birthday coming up on the 16th of November, I’ve been considering what I’m grateful for as I transition into the second year of my thirties. As a result, I’ve been redefining the word “success.”
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I think, living in the world we’ve been forced to live in, we want to believe success is the light at the end of the tunnel, the prize at the end of the race. But years ago, when I was in a mental hospital, one of the counsellors offered me an alternative to this irrational, sweeping idea.
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She said, “Success can be anything you accomplished. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, even getting out of bed and putting fresh socks on in the morning is a success.” This was years ago when I was told this (and of course I’m paraphrasing), but I’ll never forget the overall point to what she said: how you define success is up to you.
As anyone close to me can attest, I’m a complicated, sometimes difficult person to be around. I can be a real sweetheart, the gentlest person you know. At the same time, even those I’m generous to have seen me flip and become the biggest asshole – often without warning.
So I set the bar for my concept of success perhaps a bit higher than others. I have to be a bit more ambitious. When I have a goal, I become something of a perfectionist, tenacious. I won’t let go so easily. I’m like an attack dog when an unwanted guest breaks in.
Nevertheless, I’m also incredibly lazy. On my days off the bed is where you can find me. Might read a little, or binge-watch something on Netflix. But I don’t do anything. It’s only when I find the resolve to get up and give writing a go, that I even come close to the definition of “ambitious.”
Once I get into the groove, 800-1000 words aren’t out of the question. If the ideas fly and I type quickly enough, I can pump the words out in less than an hour. I’m kind of proud to admit that. A first draft isn’t always an easy thing, but when it comes, it’s a beautiful thing, a feat to be cherished.
The other way I define success is to think back on how awful of a person I used to be, find gratitude in who I am now, and dream of who I will be in the coming decade. I’m still awful, but not as toxic as I was. And of course, becoming a better person will take hard work and vigilance. It isn’t something you can just stand by and wait on. This seems to be why some people never really improve. It takes dedication, like any skill.
But I’m getting there. And that’s the important thing. Like the counsellor said, success doesn’t have to be some magnificent achievement. Nothing is done in one fell swoop.
Even genius artistic achievements are incremental. Michaelangelo didn’t wake up one day and paint the Sistine Chapel. He worked his way up to it. I doubt he would have been commissioned without having some credentials to back it up.
It’s still that way today. Those lofty literary magazines or well-known showcases that writers and artists dream of being featured in most likely won’t be the first places to publish or display your work. If creative people defined this as the only determiner of success – rather than one of their ultimate goals – we’d probably be more miserable than we’re stereotyped as.
Shoot for the stars, of course. I wouldn’t suggest anyone stop at complacency, and I hope I haven’t said anything that sounds like I am. On the contrary, you can’t get there without building up your portfolio, so just getting your work out there and being successful in smaller ways is a wonderful stepping-stone to even greater successes.
If you don’t have the emotional energy (also called “spoons”) to do the big stuff, more seemingly-trivial tasks will do. People in the grips of depression will tell you that sometimes it’s a struggle to brush your teeth or get a shower. It feels wrong telling sufferers these aren’t achievements, but, regardless, depression can hold its grip tightly. These are, by definition, achievements. I’m proud of you if that’s all you’ve done today. No pressure from me.
I feel less successful than others my age (and many younger folks), but I certainly don’t feel as if I’ve accomplished nothing. I’ve succeeded on my own terms, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. We should all strive to define success on our terms and not by what others want us to see ourselves as.
Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.