At the Inbound Conference, held recently in Boston, Arianna Huffington spoke about how success is often measured in terms of money and power but wisdom, physical well-being and giving back are equally important measures of a life well lived.
This notion of the meaning of success is one that has always been a challenge for me. As a child growing up black and modestly middle class with the good fortune to have extraordinary educational and life experiences, success was simple: managing to excel in situations when many around me assumed I would fail, or at best be average. Low grades were devastating; failing grades almost unthinkable. The goal of all this work was clear: a great job and access to privileges previously denied to my parents and to the majority of people of color.
Years later, I found myself working for a Fortune 500 Company, managing world-class brands, developing products and advertising campaigns and traveling the world. While blessed with many of the perks and privileges earned by staying at the office a little bit later than others so that I could prove my worth and move ahead, I had little time for meaningful friendships, limited moments for family engagement and no time to pay my good fortune forward. I thoroughly enjoyed working until whenever, firing off emails at whatever o'clock in the morning, and traveling anywhere my presence was required.
Then I got hit by a car. While I walked away relatively unscathed, the experience actually got me to stop and ask, "What am I doing?" I never exercised, the most social thing I did was go grocery shopping (and I usually ended up tossing the groceries the following week) and all those things I once enjoyed--dance, writing, art, and fashion were indulgences that were fast becoming distant memories. Getting struck by a car forced me to stop and reassess.
I determined the first thing I could do something about was my physical well-being, so I joined a gym and got a trainer. I knew that I might cancel on myself but I would never cancel a business appointment with a trainer. I never missed a date. Eventually I left my job and took some time off to reconnect with friends and spend time with my relatives who were in the twilight of their lives. While my job hunt would prove challenging later on, I am left with priceless memories of time spent with my father, my aunt and others. I joined the board of The Multicultural Arts Center so that I could do my part to give others the opportunity to explore different kinds of dance, music and art.
Arianna also talked about creating time to think and space to create in our lives. I have found this to be easier said than done, but when I have managed to do it, wonderful things have happened--a deeper understanding with a friend, insight into a troubling problem at work or at home or something purely creative--a piece of jewelry that is uniquely mine or a book written and published in a short window of time because I was so inspired to see it through.
Given all that I have been able to do and achieve in pursuit of traditional success, it would be incredibly cavalier of me to say now that it is wrong to strive for a great job, access and privileges which are in fact still harder for talented people to attain than they should be --especially for people of color. Instead, it's important to also make room in life for those things that Arianna suggested during her speech in Boston: wisdom, physical well-being and giving back. Don't wait for a life-altering experience like getting hit by a car before making a change.