Who decides what success looks like?

This question has been weighing on me pretty heavily lately. I’m not sure if it’s because I read about other people’s successes so often now with social media, or if it’s because this year marks 20 years since my high school graduation (?!?!) , or if I’m going through a pre-mid-life crisis (because I cannot be old enough for an actual mid-life crisis…. right?). It could be because I’m getting closer and closer to 40, and by then, I’m supposed to be successful. Right?

At least, that’s what they say.

But, who are they, exactly? Who is this nondescript group of they that get to determine who is successful and who is not? What makes them experts in my life and in yours? Who died and made them boss?

I mentioned it’s 20 years since high school for me this year. As far as I know, there is no “official” reunion planned. (And no, it isn’t my job to plan it, for those of you who may be reading this thinking it is.) That being said, I’ve heard rumors of pockets of people planning get-togethers and such this summer to mark the occasion. To be honest, I keep in touch with very few people from back in the day. I run into some here and there. I’m “friends” with many of them on Facebook, but I don’t really keep in touch with more than a few. At most. I was recently trying to figure out how I fell out of touch with most of them, and it boiled down to two reasons.

One, I never really “belonged” to any one group. I was a tag-a-long. Sure, I was friends with many in groups, and I had a handful of close friends, but I was never “one of them”. I floated from group to group, so by default I never had the history needed to create those solid friendships, I guess. It amazes me when I see posts and pictures of people from high school who are still surrounded by the same groups of people from way back then. They’ve married each other, had kids all together, and all still see each other. And then, there’s me. And I’m ok with that.

The second reason is a very vain reason and the main point of this rambling post. See, back in high school, I was somebody. People knew who I was. I participated in extracurriculars. I was one of the “smart kids”. By the time I was a junior, I was – dare I say it – popular, to some degree at least. And even more than that, I was somebody who was going to succeed in life. The expectations on me were high. I was one of the the future doctors and lawyers and professors. I was on the path to a great career after college, guaranteed!

And you know what? I totally could have done that after college. But I didn’t. I chose a completely different path for myself. And while I do not at all regret that decision, it does make it hard for me to see myself with a group of those doctors and lawyers and professors that I went to school with who did follow that path. Those who chose careers and have built very successful lives for themselves. All I can picture is them asking “So, what do you do?”, and all I can say is I stay home with my kids. Now, that’s not entirely true because I have built successful businesses over the years, but the kind of businesses I have built are typically not thought of as “real” jobs. So most of the time, I don’t mention them. Because if it’s not a “real” job, then it’s not really a success (according to the elusive they). So, the idea of seeing many of these people again makes me cringe a little inside. Because how do I explain how I could “waste” so much potential? How could I have let myself go from a somebody to, well, this?

Which leads me back to who gets to define success.

I’m challenging myself to define my own success. It’s hard. Really hard. Society at large (aka “they“) have a very distinct description of success. It almost always includes a career, lots of money, a huge house, vacations, and new cars. I have none of that. At least, not at the moment.

But I do have a full life. I don’t have a career, but I have every moment of being home watching my kids grow and witnessing every milestone. I get to see them thrive learning new things and discover who they truly are meant to be. We have enough money for us to live without struggling, even if that means we rarely go out to eat. We have a home that may be small, but it’s full of love and laughter and emotions and struggles and mess. We don’t take extravagant vacations because we choose to live within our means. We haven’t bought a new car since 2004, but we’ve had “new to us” cars that get us where we need to go. We don’t have the fancy toys, or the newest gadgets, or anything else the Jones’ may have, but we have each other. And we have happiness in our little world.

Sometimes, it takes writing a post like this to remember just how successful my life truly is.

So, I challenge you to redefine success in your life. Live outside of societal norm. It takes some strength to do it and even more to not feel like a failure in the eyes of them. But it’s a challenge worth taking. Because the only person who is allowed to decide what makes you successful, is you.