Suppose you set out to create a sculpture that epitomized "success." You might create an image of a well-educated professional, replete with power, wealth and status. Or you might create a group sculpture, depicting people bonded by mutual love and support. In one image, success comes from achieving and competing; in the other, from sharing and belonging.
In my twenties, I tried to live both these versions of success, working toward a Ph.D. at Harvard while raising three children. We liberated women thought we could have it all back in the overachieving '80s and '90s. It turned out that we could have everything but sleep. And, in my case, peace of mind. Our conflicting cultural definitions of "success" meant that everything I did to be a devoted, family-centered mom clashed horribly with my efforts to succeed as a high-achieving, career-oriented professional.
Desperate to solve my own problems, I began researching ways women were navigating our society's images of success. A relatively small number of women adamantly championed "traditional values," believing that women should be focused entirely on domesticity and relationships. A similar number were militantly opposed to this, defining women's success in terms of their ability to escape traditional female roles, and live lives that until then, had been possible only for privileged men.
The majority of women I interviewed, however, felt like me: conflicted and confused, limited and pressured. Trying to combine traditionalist and feminist behaviors landed them squarely in the crossfire of political and moral debate. Nowadays, I see this same pressure in men, who are receiving the double message that they should be sensitive, egalitarian and relationship-based on one hand, and tough, competitive providers on the other. It's as if each person is a lump of clay being pushed into two completely contradictory molds: traditional, group-focused values and modern, competitive individualism.
Fortunately, pressing clay into molds isn't the only way to make a sculpture. Another way is to start with an armature -- a kind of solid skeleton -- and to build the form around it. Unlike pressing into a mold, sculpting with the armature method never yields two forms that are exactly alike.
My research showed that more and more women took this option at the end of the twentieth century. They temporarily pulled away from all social pressures, searching inward for the moral core on which to build a life. Instead of continuing to ask, "How can I succeed?", they began asking, "what would feel like success to me?" Building their lives around the answer yielded a richly varied image of success. The one thing all these people shared was a commitment to accepting one another's uniqueness.
As someone who has both lived and studied this issue, I highly recommend breaking free from all molds long enough to know what brings you satisfaction and fulfillment. Strive to achieve that standard. Build on a core of personal passion, your deepest truth, no matter what anyone says or does. This offers the world your singular, inimitable, uniquely beautiful life; an image of success that only you can embody.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.