THE BLOG
08/06/2014 02:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Does Success Look Like?

Mike Kemp via Getty Images

In the last two years, I left my husband and the secure lifestyle he provided, walked away from a PhD program funded by the National Science Foundation and changed career paths to a field in which I had no background. I can almost see you cringing at your screen thinking, "Poor thing. What a sad story." I assure you, this is not a ploy to garner sympathy. In fact, this is a story about how I came to be the happiest I have ever been in my life.

Have you ever found yourself buried under the "S word"? You know, that nasty word that gets flung around constantly and doesn't seem to do anyone much good: Should. Growing up, my mom frequently used the phrase, "Nobody likes to be should upon." Despite being consciously aware of this philosophy, I fell prey to the expectations I perceived from society, my family and my peers. Growing up in a single parent household, which was not the way things "should" have been, I promised myself I would find a nice, secure marriage so I could raise my kids in White Picket Fence Suburbia. I met my husband my sophomore year of college at age 19, which of course is the perfect age to make serious, lifelong decisions. We got engaged when I was 20, married when I was 22. In retrospect, it's ridiculous how quickly I leapt into that commitment, telling myself we had our whole lives to work out the red flags I had noticed. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't physically abused or forced to live in inhumane conditions; my ex-husband is actually a wonderful, generous and thoughtful man, which made dissolving the marriage that much more more difficult. But as I grew up and learned more about who I am as a person, it became clear that we are fundamentally different people. Multiple counselors arrived at the same conclusion: making our marriage last wasn't impossible, but it would be difficult given our differences in interests, lifestyle, when to start family, where to live and generally all the things two people should agree on before making the plunge into matrimony. To his credit, my ex was very clear and remained rock solid on his expectations; it was me who did most of the changing. This chapter in my life led to a series of other decisions I made for the wrong reasons (see aforementioned graduate program), but I stand here today with no regrets.

I don't believe in the old adage, "Everything happens for a reason," but I do passionately believe that every experience we go through presents an opportunity to learn about ourselves and the world around us. By seeking to find the lessons in my failed marriage and less than ideal graduate experience, I was able to articulate what I wanted in my life moving forward, both personally and professionally. I learned to stop comparing myself to others or wondering how my life "should" look. I realized that the definition of success is different for every single person out there. In fact, we need everyone to be different so we can cooperate and live in a functioning society I think this point was summed up well by Albert Einstein when he said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." When I truly embraced this idea and began following MY path, everything began to fall into place.

You might now be thinking, "OK, great, you've told me how you created a meaningful life for yourself, but how do I do that too?" For me, what changes a nice story into something transformational is when I can take action and apply the principles I've learned to my life. My recommendation to you, whether struggling to find your path or not, is to write a mission statement. Why? For me, the thought of writing down five, 10 or 20 year goals was so specific that I remained in a state of perpetual procrastination. So much has changed in just the last two years, how can I pretend to know where I will be in five or 10 years? But without articulating SOMETHING about who I am, what I believe, or what I want to accomplish, I felt like speck floating in the ocean, waiting to see where the current would take me.

To begin, I started brainstorming about my values and goals, however vague or specific they sounded. I read how-to guides, other mission statements, borrowed phrases that resonated with me and ultimately came up with a list.

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The structure and format came about as personal choices that felt right to me. But that's what this should be, right? Completely personalized. Once it's finished, you can choose to keep it private, but I recommend putting it where others can see it to increase your accountability. Mine is hanging up at work.

I check in with my mission statement on a regular basis and assess how my current engagements align with the statements I wrote. For example, one of the promises I made to myself is, "I will be passionate and enthusiastic in all my endeavors."This statement does not touch on what kind of career I will have or what kind of car I want to drive. Instead it's a reminder to find the joy in everything I do. You know what's funny? I wrote my mission statement in the spring of 2013, after my husband and I had separated but before I left my graduate program or entered the field I'm in now. When I revisit my mission statement, I recognize that the more I align to it, the happier and more fulfilled I feel. I feel simultaneously comforted that I finally feel grounded in the person I am and inspired to keep working toward the goals I set for myself.

Ultimately, it is up to us to create our own happiness. Nobody else can shoulder that responsibility or take the blame for our discontent. Why should we waste another minute living up to someone else's expectations or ignoring our authentic path and vision? Yes, I have encountered obstacles, but that will happen regardless of what path I choose. By being true to myself, I can justify my choices and make the most out of my experiences. I urge you to choose to learn from your experiences and use those lessons to create your future with intention.