I recently attended a lecture on “Unleashing Your Voice,” about recognizing who we are. It brought me back to the first time I met my Buddhist teacher, Dr. Joe Loizzo. He and I discussed the way people think they know who they are and what they want in life. Who are we, really? Do we robotically follow the standards that society has determined for us, or are we living authentically a life of our own choosing?
When I was growing up, I often asked myself that question. For the longest time my answer was that I was living my own authentic life. Maybe it’s easier when you’re younger not to base your worth on what others might define “success” to be. But the older I became, the more that belief diminished and the more I could see that I was adapting to the standards of society: work, gain, acquire; school, relationship, marriage, kids. Everyone else seemed to have a nice apartment or house, stylish clothes, expensive vacations—the whole outward show of standard success. I worked hard and I wanted those rewards, too. But often those things only make us think we’re happy and only make us feel better about ourselves for a little while.
A bit later in life, when our homes and careers and children are what we have made them, we may look back and wonder: Why do I remember spending much more time on work and other responsibilities than on the smaller moments of laughter? Why do the moments of happiness seem so brief amid the grownup duties? Was I so busy and driven that the important personal moments stayed hidden in my memory among the more prominent thoughts of work and chores and everything I always felt I had to accomplish?
Now I see things differently. Success comes from myself, from the way I feel about myself. I feel successful when a friend confides in me and I’m able to give her some support or advice that makes her feel better. I feel successful when, after reminding my kids a thousand times to say “please” and “thank you,” one of them spontaneously says it. When I’ve accomplished the work I wanted to do that day. Or when I reach a goal I’ve set for myself, like rock climbing or learning a new dance. “I did it!” I can say with pride, even when no one else hears. I can feel as good about myself as I did when I was younger and I lived the authentic life without even trying.
The next time you ask yourself, “Am I successful?” make sure your yardstick of success is of your own making and not one of society’s expectations. The latter is hollow and may leave you with regrets. The former will bring you home to yourself every time.
Are you successful?