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What Is Success?

Pondering the complex constellation that is success – with a teen

"Why," my 14-year-old son asked me recently, “does society lie to kids?”

Hmmm, I thought, he’s going to have to be more specific, what with this being an election year and all.  I asked him to explain.

“Ever since we were little kids,” he continued in a familiar tone of righteous umbrage, “we’re given the message that ‘you can do and be anything you want.’  But it’s a lie.  For most of us, our dreams will never really come true, despite what movies, pop songs, and popular culture tell kids. 

“Did you get that message at home?” I asked, wondering if his father and I were complicit in this ‘lie’.

“Not so much at home,” he admitted. 

“You always emphasized that hard work was a part of life and a part of achieving success.  But I wonder about that too.  I mean, I could work really, really hard at guitar and never be successful at it.”

He’s right, if by successful he means achieving fame and fortune.  But aren’t there other ways to define success?

Benjamin’s guitar reference got me thinking about my brother. Peter has been playing guitar since he was about Benjy’s age. He took lessons every week for years, practiced for hours, and played in bands in high school. In his twenties he played less, instead focusing on completing college and graduate school, settling into his career, and starting his family. But the yearning to keep playing – and keep learning – never left him. He decided to become a classical guitarist, which I am told is almost like learning to play an entirely new instrument. The notes are complex and the fingering is completely different.  But he did it. Peter “successfully” mastered classical guitar. 

Yet, he will never make any money from his guitar playing, nor will he achieve any fame. Did society forget to teach its kids that Peter is nevertheless a success story? I wonder if kids today understand that joy is sometimes the best reward for hard work. It sounds so trite, I know, but it also happens to be true.

Take my garden. It will never, ever win a horticulture award and I will never, ever be asked to replace Ruth Foster in dispensing gardening tips for public consumption. Yet in my own way, I am a successful gardener.

When we moved into our home 17 years ago, I inherited soil beds that consisted of more rock debris and pieces of glass than actual dirt. Nothing, and I mean not a thing, grew there but nasty, invasive weeds. Without any professional landscaping help at all, I managed, over these long years, to winnow out many of the thousands of rocks and pieces of glass that lay there, to edge the garden with bricks, to plant shrubs that often bloom, and to plant perennial flowers that – unless the squirrels get to them first – bloom in the spring, the summer, and the fall.  It’s still a little wild and could certainly use more color, but I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish.

Isn’t that a success story of sorts? 

Last example. I have two friends who have, in recent summers, successfully biked across the country. They set the goal, trained hard for it, and then accomplished it. Again, this accomplishment will bring them neither fame nor money (and that was never the point of it anyway) but what a success story!  And what happiness it brought each of them – in all of the phases of executing the goal: training for it for months and months, amassing the equipment, mapping out the routes, and finally, pedaling for six or seven hours day in and day out.

What I hope to impart to my kids is that what constitutes success is neither fame nor fortune, but rather the pure happiness that can come from working really hard to pursue a goal. Otherwise, we are all failing all of the time. 

I hope my son can see that, yes, Disney movies and pop songs may tout that dreams come true to all who dream. But, it’s not always a lie. I guess it just depends on what his  dreams are and on how he measures success.  If he dreams of winning Olympic gold or of walking on Mars, he will probably be disappointed.

But if his dreams are of mastery more along the lines of Peter, my garden, or a cross-country bike adventure, I know he will be successful and filled with all the good feelings that accompany that level of success.

Robin Cushman Phillips September 25, 2012 at 06:40 PM
This is a fantastic article and oh so relevant in today's busy, demanding and driven society.

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