The Irrational Mind

The Definition of Success

In a meeting with the tutoring company I work for, we discussed how our young students define success.

What makes a person successful?

Many of the clients at this company are powerful people in the D.C. metro area who want their children to go to Ivy League schools (hence the tutoring). The students have it ingrained in them that 1) academic success is the most important thing ever and 2) if they do not go to X college, they will not get a good job/make good connections, and their lives will be failures.

None of us in the room had Ivy League degrees, but we all considered ourselves successful and generally happy with our lives. Isn’t that success?

I went to two highly-ranked universities for very specialized degrees, and I’m now self-employed and trying to grow various online streams of income. I’m the happiest I’ve been in years, but, in the back of my head, my brain tells me that I should have continued with my PhD program and gotten the “real job” I spent years working towards. After all, without that mystical “real job,” haven’t all these years been a waste?

If I hadn’t gone to grad school, I’d have never met my husband. I’d have never met some of my best friends. My life would be completely different right now. Would it be better?

Who knows?

I don’t think it would be better, since Matt is a very important part of my life. Everything I’ve done leading up to the present moment has shaped me as a person.

The tutoring company founder, Ned, offered the parable of the Chinese farmer:

A Chinese farmer was tilling his land when his horse escaped and ran away. The man’s neighbors approached him and said “Oh no, what horrible luck!” The farmer responded, “Who knows?”

A week later the horse returned with three other horses. The neighbors surrounded the farmer again, saying “What great luck!” The farmer responded, “Who knows?”

The next day, the farmer’s only son was trying to break one of the new horses, when he was thrown from the animal and broke both his legs. “What horrible luck!” the neighbors offered sympathetically. “Who knows?” said the farmer.

A few days later, a war erupted in the country, and the Emperor demanded that each household provide one son for battle. The farmer’s son could not serve, as his legs were broken….

It is very easy to get mentally hung up on whether or not our lives are where they should be right now. Every day our experiences shape us, so it is important to not get so hung up on the future that we do not focus on and enjoy the now.

Success is what you make it. Define your life on your own terms.

4 thoughts on “The Definition of Success

  1. Kat

    This is exactly what I needed to read. The only thing I know is I would be happier doing what you’re doing and trying everything else that I might want to do.

    If you aren’t already, I suggest linking your latest articles in facebook… that’s how I get to 90% of the articles I read on the internet, through facebook.

  2. Dan

    “It is very easy to get mentally hung up on whether or not our lives are where they should be right now.”

    Getting rid of any preconceived notions that the word “should” has any business in anything related to one’s life can be difficult, but once I got there, it’s been enormously freeing.

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