How Do You Define Success?

A few years ago, the highly purposed idealist in me experienced a brief, but highly personal, crisis. Today, I am redefining success as personal growth and creative self-expression. I may not fit an established norm, but I've made myself happy.
09/20/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2013-09-19-Maurainbutterflychair.jpgEven during times of transition, we can redefine our idea of success.

I've always been a tad nonconformist, but I'm noticing how one of my long-treasured beliefs is coming of age.

Success can, and in some cases must, be defined by individual preference rather than outward norms or previously accepted benchmarks. The world is ever evolving and we're forced to adapt. In the process, we have opportunity to redefine what it means to discover success in life.

I'm old enough to recall marriage and child rearing as the American ideal. Divorce or an out-of-wedlock child meant moral and religious failure and the parties in question were made social outcasts. Women who didn't marry by age 23 were labeled old maids, even if they preferred to take a different path.

Life spans were shorter, too. If 23 created old maids, 30 marked full maturity and 40 qualified for Geritol, a popular tonic marketed to those approaching their sunset years. Grandparenthood started early and the time between retirement and death was brief.

Men were generally the economic providers. They worked in easily identifiable occupations like plumber, accountant, lawyer, factory worker and doctor. Job hopping was frowned upon, a sign of instability or insubordination. Most worked at the same place until they retired, usually at 62, often with pension in hand.

In this former era, everyone fit neatly into an order that Americans could understand and rely on. Far from perfect, it provided comfort in its predictability and enabled people to define their identity and relative success in the world.

Many prospered under the old order, enjoying a good run. Others continue to live in that space today. But what about the rest?

These days, I encounter many who believe that success along previously defined lines is eluding them. These include recent graduates, frequently armed with advanced degrees and student loans to match. Hopeful of an employment system they believed in, they're now confronting a job market where opportunities appear slim.

They're mature workers whose jobs were eliminated due to outsourcing, downsizing and obsolescence. Still wanting and/or needing to work, they feel marginalized into shadows of their former positions and pay.

They're women who left careers to raise children and recognize their parenting roles have expired. Unlikely to become grandparents any time soon, they question what to do in the interim.

They're couples whose careers and home equity vaporized in the recession and an over-blown real estate bubble. Lifestyles they took decades to build turned to sand and now they wonder if they can rebuild from what remains.

They're young adults living home with parents; middle agers whose spouses left them; and older offspring caring for their elderly parents.

Regardless of age, many today experience an undercurrent of confusion and unease. As the social, economic and occupational order they believed in continues to disappear, so does their relative sense of success.

My intent is neither to approve or disapprove of American measures of success but instead to inspire meaningful, new definitions.

"It's a good thing we're so thrifty. We didn't know we'd live this long." -- Aunt Helen, age 90

Whether by necessity of age, circumstance or era, we're challenged to find new ways to define ourselves, our purpose and our joy. Easier for some than others, there remains hope to see ourselves from a refreshed perspective.

A few years ago, I came face to face with my own questions about success. I'd enjoyed a corporate career and time as a home schooling mom but was anxious to explore new horizons as our daughter would soon be away at college.

In a move my husband claims was either brilliant or completely insane. We took a leap of faith. Together since our late teens and sharing a sense of adventure, the two of us wanted to create a different future. Attempting to combine a travel-friendly lifestyle and a desire to positively impact culture, we launched an entertainment company.

Taking the road less traveled, we sold our house in advance of the real estate bust and moved to a modest town home. Next, we closed our profitable computer firm and said goodbye to the security that accompanied it.

Playing entrepreneur was a major stretch. We were taking ideas (or ideals) and turning them into reality. Leaving our familiar world, we entered the unknown with new industries, new faces and new digital spaces. Virtual nobodies among young experts and seasoned pros, we constantly had to step up our game to get noticed -- or even taken seriously.

A few years ago, the highly purposed idealist in me experienced a brief, but highly personal, crisis. Away on vacation with time for reflection, I looked back on a past I'd already lived and forward to a future I could hardly imagine.

"It's like going through transition in childbirth. The discomfort is overwhelming but the joy of outcome is ultimately worth the pain." -- A Knowing Friend

While it would take additional time, stretching and mental transformation, I can report some light from the other side. Today, I am redefining success as personal growth and creative self-expression.

Surprisingly, my transition provided content for over 200 Maura4u videos, countless blogs and booklets encouraging others to redefine their idea of success, too.

I may not fit an established norm, but I've made myself happy.

Whatever your definition of success, may you find yourself happy, too!

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