Like most folks, I’ve spent much of my life working on/searching for ways to become what I believed at any given time to be a “success”.
Immediately it’s important to note that the concept of “success” is a hard thing to define, since (a) it’s often a moving target, and (b) it usually means many different things to different people, often changing depending upon where they are at in their lives.
But regardless of whenever it is, or whatever the current definition of it is, for most folks the idea of “What success is” seems to be dictated by two things: Their age/maturity at any given time; and the environment they find themselves in at that time. Allow me to explain:
As young kids, most of us didn’t even know what the word “success” meant, nor did we care. We only knew that life was what it was, and we were usually pretty cool with that.
For example, if after a nice family dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes (& gravy!) mom allowed us to sit and watch our favorite t.v. show for an hour before we snuggled into our warm beds, we were pretty much golden. Knowing that our day would play out this way was predictable, and therefore for us, life seemed pretty damn good, and why not?
Being well fed, in a warm bed, in a warm house and knowing full well that our parents were safely close by made us feel safe and loved; and therefore through our childish interpretation of this, life felt pretty “successful” – even more so since as tots, we didn’t really know any different.
However, as we began to get older we started to notice more stuff – particularly the “stuff” that our friends had that we didn’t have. I’m talking about things like fancy running shoes, updated and/or newer electronics, better vacations, nicer bicycles, brand name clothes, etc.
We wanted these things too, but were often told “we can’t afford it” by beleagured and hard-working parents who – unbeknowst to us – were doing their very best to make ends meet. With this comparison, we suddenly felt a little less content in our lives, and began looking for solutions to make us feel as “successful” as our more affluent peers.
Unfortunately, such comparisons are often the first time in our lives when we are presented with our initial – and misguided – view of what we belief of what “success” looks like, despite the fact that it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Oh, and for the record, back in the day Adidas “Wimbledon” sneakers were the Holy Grail I aspired to owning.
And sadly, just as I was desperate for those running shoes in my teens, today I see many youth viewing this same type of materialism to mean that “To be cool, to be successful, to fit in you need to have the same stuff as those rich guys. Without it, you aren’t as worthy as they are”.
The biggest difference between my day and now is that you can pretty much exchange the words “Adidas” and “Apple”; but regardless of when in time, or what the “cool stuff” is, if you don’t have it then you feel like an outsider – plain and simple.
Ouch! Life can be pretty hard and direct sometimes! So what to do? How do we define what “success” means for us?
Well, in my case I tried keep up with this twisted tween version of “Keeping up with the Jones” by finding work so I’d have the cash to spend on this kind of crap. I first began by baby-sitting the local brats; next I graduated to mowing neighbours lawns and raking their leaves; and finally I added “paperboy” to my resume by picking up several paper routes, something which found me working both long hours before AND after school. (not to mention neglecting my studies, much to my parent’s chagrin)
I worked hard, and diligently saved my pennies until the day arrived that I could FINALLY afford my very first pair of Adidas running shoes! Take note that these were the EXACT same running shoes my parents said they couldn’t afford to buy me six months earlier, which gave my 16-year-old self an arrogant air of superiority.
Once I’d acquired this footwear everything changed for me! And to make sure everyone else was aware that I was no longer a nerd, I’d strut through the hallways of school confidently thinking “Yeah, I’m cool – I’ve got Adidas on” naively believing that at that moment, I was the very picture of (grade ten) success, and why not? It was obvious that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) wished they were as cool as me and my Adidas runners. Or did they?
Maybe not, and here’s why: Because – all of a sudden – as quickly as I felt successful, I DIDN’T feel successful – not at all… What? What happened?!
It turned out Adidas runners alone weren’t enough to guarantee me a spot on the “cool kids” list; to be truly cool and “fit in” I also had to have the same jeans the cool kids wore, being “Red Tab” Levi jeans – and not just one pair! And so back to my paper routes I went to begin the “work-buy-work-buy” process all over again to afford the material possessions I figured I had to have to be in vogue.
As new items of “cool” appeared (and they ALWAYS appear) this pattern continued over and over again; and it eventually had me working throughout my teen years to constantly buy shit I figured I “had to have” to fit in with kids who – if I’m going to be honest – never even hung out with me because – again, if I’m going to be honest – they never thought I was cool in the first place – regardless of what label jeans I wore or running shoes I had on. Such are the cliques of High School.
But did this stop me? No way! I was determined to forge on, going so far as to get a “real” job washing dishes to make even more money. And as my cash flow grew, my desire to project a materialized image of “success” grew right along with it. Before long I’d become somewhat of an out-of-control runaway train/clothes horse, one time even spending almost $400 (1980’s) dollars to buy not one, but two leather jackets… Really? AYFKM?
Really. In fact, I’d proudly wear my jacket(s) around town each day, mostly mid-week, trying to look cool during the sweltering hot Victorian summer afternoons. I was pretty sure that everyone who saw me must have thought that this 16 year old kid dressed in such nice, expensive clothes that he MUST be a roaring “success”… Hang on, what was that?
Did I say sweltering hot Victorian summer mid-week afternoons? What gives?! Why wouldn’t I reserve these fancy, status-seeking garments – the epitome of 1970’s young adult chic – for the wild and crazy weekend nights when the other cool and beautiful people who dressed like me were out and on display?
Oh yeah; because during those times when everyone else was out partying, being seen and having fun with their friends, I was slaving away in a dish-pit, elbow deep scrubbing dirty pots and pans and washing up those other peoples messes, and you know why?
Because it’s how I made the money that allowed me to afford to buy the clothes and other material possessions I felt I needed to impress the world; things I couldn’t show off to them when they were out and about because I WAS WORKING! Talk about irony!
Fortunately for me, this cycle of madness changed a few short years later. Having flunked out of high school (because Duh! I worked all the time! Okay, I was pretty lazy too…) yet craving independence at 18 years old I immediately moved out of my parent’s house – you know, the one with the roast beef, colour t.v. and warm bed – and into a crappy little bachelor suite.
Needless to say that it didn’t take long for me to realize that my money needed to be used for things other than clothes; you know, things like rent, food and utilities.
Harsh reality? Sure. Best thing that ever happened to me? Well, certainly in the top three!
Seriously, this was the first one of many “wake-up” calls I’d have in my life regarding what true “success” is; and I’m truly thankful I got it at such a young age. And while my life has had it’s share of challenges (as everyone’s has) I still look back to this experience
26 (ouch!) 36 years ago as a defining lesson in what “success” means.
You see, ever since those early days I’ve always had the full belly, a warm bed and the security of knowing my family was safe; but all these things look different now, since now I’m the head of the family, own my home and decide what I buy and why I want it. And I can tell you, it’s never to impress other people. I left that ambition back in my crappy bachelor apartment.
Learning to take care of myself at 18 years old – as in being able to manage my money, my time and learn how to take care of myself all made me feel successful. As I learned to not worry so much about what the “cool kids” thought about me, I realized that they weren’t paying their own way like I was and unfortunately, many of them never learned to.
In short, for me life was manageable, and I was happy – truly happy – living the way I was living, and on my terms. For me, this was true “success”. And while many things have changed for me over the years, this philosophy has remained steadfast.
Because for me, the true definition of “success” is to do what makes me happy; and then do more of it, and keep on doing it – Regardless of what the Jones are up to, or what kind of shoes (& jeans) they like to wear. Besides, chances are if they are busy trying to impress everyone else, I’ll bet my bottom dollar they bought it on credit at 28% interest… And trust me, there is nothing successful about that.