Maybe true success isn’t simply what we do, but liking what we do and who we are with while we are doing it.
In the early 2000s, my husband and I earned multiple degrees at top-tier schools. During this time, we came to believe — as did many of our friends and mentors — that achievement and career trump family and geography, and that "success" is what happens when you follow job opportunities. In this archetypal scenario, you take the best (read: most prestigious) job irrespective of work-life balance, set up anywhere, and complete the upward trajectory set forth for you when you began your higher education endeavor. Surrounded by other high achievers, ‘normal’ was often internalized as climbing ever-higher rungs on an endless ladder, whereby achievement is the hallmark of purpose, of meaning, of value. To be worthwhile was to be productive in quantifiable and tangible ways. To question that ethos was a failure of one’s education and of one’s potential, particularly as a woman of high aspirations.
But a funny thing happened. I didn’t follow that path, a decision that I still mull over daily. Despite my own inclinations to seek success through career affirmation, I stepped off the beaten path — which, for me, was a traditional academic career, a “life of the mind” for which I would have to be willing to move anywhere. I chose people and place and a pace I set myself — relationships and time — over a more clearly delineated career track.
In my early 20s I remember giving very little thought to how all of the things that I envisioned in the future, such as an enduring relationship, an academic career, name recognition in my field, and travel, would come together. I marvel at my naiveté at not understanding that tireless youthful energy fades, that my days would some day be measured in between naps and school pick-ups, that life offers opportunity but always extracts compromise and sacrifice in return. I recognize now too how utterly classed the idea of "having it all" is, and how little such a belief structure takes into account the costs (both economic and personal) of making such things possible.
Over a decade ago, my then-boyfriend and I graduated college and moved to France for the year. I pursued a graduate degree in Paris, and he a teaching assistantship in Lyon sponsored by the French government. We studied hard, worked hard, and traveled, seeing the world with the lightness, curiosity, and detachment of those who owe nobody but themselves anything. We were broke, but we had wine on the Seine and chocolate in Grenoble at sunset. We were not beholden to anyone or anything, and in many ways were completely free. It was an idealized, untethered existence that for quite some time meant the ultimate success: to be chasing your dreams wherever and however these took you, making them manifest without anyone else to take care of or give account to. Success was easily defined as a combination of ambition and independence, and for many years these were the driving forces behind every decision we made.
As we moved forward, we got married. We became tied to each other, in nascent careers and without much else to be beholden to. We still lived everywhere and nowhere: Paris, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and more. We lived on instant ramen and frozen vegetables on the corner of Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, each day a triumph of new adventures. We stayed for eight years in Philadelphia, each of us completing two degrees, but never really believing in permanence. There was always another move on the horizon, another life shake-up we would surely pursue, driven by professional advancement and our desire to follow the most ambitious path possible. Even after the birth of our first child, this truism held true.
It was upon our move to Connecticut, the home state to which I never planned to return but where a job offer nevertheless took me, that everything changed. This was the place I had left seeking complete independence when I departed for college, the place I had left behind by design. Yet here we found ourselves, with a daughter in tow and another on the way. I had never planned to return, but here we were, and my mother — who had never left — was in declining health. I had never planned (nor wished) to return, yet my children thrived in the presence and care of my mother, whom my eldest had before only seen in fleeting visits. I began to glimpse between my daughters and my mother an echo of the loving relationship I had with both my grandmothers, memories that I cherish now as an adult. The childhood friends that I had drifted away from as I chased the bigger, the best, the farthest life I could, were the ones to show up when I needed it, when life with careers and young children and bills got hard. I never meant to come back, but it all came back to me, more familiar and necessary than ever before.
Eventually, the great job that brought me back turned out to be a mismatch of expectations and culture. It was well-paying and I could try to use it as a springboard for other positions, but I no longer felt motivated or satisfied in the day-to-day routine. As my daughters grew, they needed me more than I could have understood they would — for school, for enrichment, for emotional well-being, and for a hand to hold. As my work as a university administrator expanded in scope and hours, so did the needs of my children. I was increasingly drawn to the kind of creative writing I had set aside after college and to the desire to be present for my children.
I began to wonder: What is success? How do I define it now, and is it constitutive of or separate from happiness? What if the global, atomized nature of “work” is giving us (30-something, mobile professionals) more opportunities but making us less happy? Maybe true success isn’t simply what we do, but liking what we do and who we are with while we are doing it. I eventually left my job to pursue the world of words and ideas on my own terms, encouraged by my husband to pursue something of my own creation, somewhere between the vague ruminations of intellectual thought and the hard, tangible realities of childrearing. I was suddenly “off the path,” forging a trail that was never part of the plan.
I like this direction, this old path that is new again. My children have been growing roots in a place that I recognize and have my own ties to. I am resuscitating old friendships that have been lifeblood in my day-to-day, and we are building a patchwork of people that matter to us, that fill our home with consistency and laughter when we most need it — a reminder that we are so much more than our work, our status, or our productivity. I opted to freelance write and research, and remain in my home state after leaving a job that looked great on paper, but was draining my life and energy. The title became less important than the life lived behind it, for the first time in my adult life.
My story isn’t unique. I look around and see that many of my peers are lonely and isolated, with no village to help with small kids and nobody to sit by the bedside of an aging relative. Some are making do how they can, leveraging their careers and incomes to see relatives from afar, care for their children, and sustain meaningful work lives. Others moved closer to family to try to balance careers and relationships, sacrificing the “best” work options along the way. Still others left high profile, upwardly mobile careers and started over, deciding that “success” as it had been defined feels empty if you’re living an atomized life, far from and too busy for those who may give more contour and meaning to the earned achievements. A neuroscientist friend left academe and now runs a farm, finding value and a new pace in the curve of the land and the coming of dawn across the expanse of rolling hills. Sometimes untethering and tethering anew, to relationships and places that are tangible and satisfying, can be more fulfilling than a success that takes no shape, that must be chased down and sought anew in new geographies and with new jobs every few years, demanding at least as much as it gives. Sometimes success is stepping off a path that now seems like someone else’s dream and finding a new one.
I am now a multi-generational caretaker in many respects, and very aware of the sacrifices this has meant career wise. Many of my colleagues may never understand this decision, but I hope they do. As we watched our daughter wave goodbye to my mother for the weekend and head off to a play date with her friend, my husband wondered aloud if nowadays we have “success” all backward, if we have been using the wrong metrics all along. What if success means reaching up as well as out and around? What if it is simply finding a place to dwell and grow, and making peace with the fact that to follow one path, we give up another?
I am slowly and incrementally rebuilding a village after living away for 13 years and starting to look at success very differently. I still have many moments, when I am scrambling to write and to think in between my children’s naps or when I am calling my mother or grandmother to check on their well-being, that I wonder if I have achieved all I was supposed to, if I am still as worthy of deeming myself as successful as I was 10 years ago, when bigger and better was my only reference point for "good enough."
I have spent the last year or so of my life exploring, mending, and seeking out relationships, re-weaving the fabric of community. It took me a long while to realize this is what I was doing, or even what I needed. Yet as I detached from the idea of constant steps to “success” and embraced each period, each goal, each decision within the context of what is good for our lives as a whole, as a unit, the framework was easier and the steps mattered less. My writing improved and flowed, my own voice more recognizable to me, as I concentrated on what I was doing rather than worrying about what I could or should be doing. While I still struggle with accepting that life takes shape differently than we imagine it will, I am now better at realizing what I should have known all along: Success is what you make of it, and it doesn’t define me — I define it.