We Need to Redefine Success

We sat in the sanctuary watching our five-year-old with her preschool classmates. Their teachers called each student up to the microphone to announce their future career goals. After many of her peers announced goals of becoming doctors or teachers or veterinarians, our little girl walked up to the microphone and shyly announced “I want to be a ballet teacher and an artist.”

We sighed, looked at each other, and agreed that we would support those dreams as long as she could figure out how to support herself after moving out of our house and without depending on a partner to make that dream a reality. If that’s what she wanted to do, she was welcome to it.

Thankfully, her love for art just appears to now be a creative outlet and hobby. And while it slightly broke my heart, she gave up dreams of dance shortly after we moved to Texas, trading her ballet slippers for a pair of soccer cleats. She has moved on to veterinarian dreams and after our summer vacation in the Rocky Mountains, she has started to consider environmental science as a way to change the world.

I think she’ll be ok.

Generation after generation of parents have sought success for their children. That definition has changed over time. One hundred years ago, most parents would have believed that marrying their daughter off to a financially stable young man was true success; now my dream for my daughter is that she finds a career that she loves and is able to take care of herself before she commits herself to an equally capable partner. I also want the same for my son.

As a high school teacher, I’ve spent years watching parents push their children and those same children pushing themselves to achieve it all before they turn 18. I’ve watched teenagers become more stressed, more anxious, and less capable of life skills. Every decision, every action, every spare minute of their day is spent making sure that they get into the college of their choice, get a head start on the career of their choice, or perfect the athletic or artistic skills necessary to ensure that they have the opportunity to pursue their dream career path.

Instead of spending their adolescence figuring out who they are and what role they want to play in their world, we’ve dumped them into a system that insists that they have to have it all figured out before they get to college. We’ve stripped them of curiosity and discovery. We’ve taken way the hunger for knowledge and turned it into an unquenchable thirst for some abstract notion of success.

And now, with a world that is unexpectedly changing on a daily basis, many of them are left wondering what they are supposed to do. Because we’ve tied success to benchmarks and goal achievement and finances, we are all now trying to determine what this changing world means for us and our notions of a successful life.

But maybe we’re discovering that we had it wrong all along.

When Andrew Luck retired from a lucrative football career last fall, the internet exploded with people who believed he was either crazy for giving up all of that money or selfish for leaving his team in a lurch. After years of injury and with an awareness of the potential long-term debilitating effects of a long career in the NFL, he decided that leaving the sport he loved so that he could be fully present with his growing family was the best thing he could do. He had already done it all. With a degree in architecture from Stanford University and athletic success at the highest level, he didn’t feel he had anything else to prove.

In the weeks that followed, people with no real stake in his actions or awareness of the dangers that face NFL players every time they take to the field, berated him for it. They questioned his motives. And they challenged the notion that he was really as good as his record showed.

As Americans, we’ve become too accustomed to measuring success by the amount of money a person has or the position of power that a person holds. We’ve told our children that the only careers worth pursuing are those that will make them the most money or give them the most influence over others. We’ve spent months praising essential workers (which includes everything from grocery clerks to teachers and medical personnel) but refuse to have discussions about how much people in those positions are paid for the essential service they provide to the rest of society, as if their goals aren’t quite good enough for us to reward them for their dedication and labor.

And like it or not, our definition of success has been causing very real emotional and psychological damage on the young people who are entering adulthood.

Yes, I had concerns when my little girl announced that her dream was two careers that usually force people into a diet of Ramen and macaroni and cheese. I also knew that she was young with a whole world of experiences ahead of her that would help her figure out who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. But my goal for her and her little brother has never been riches and glory. When I watch them on the field I’m not dreaming of scholarships because I don’t want them to be an injury away from not being able to attend college. When they bring home less than satisfactory grades, I want them to do better because I know that they can do better and I want them to do their best, whatever that is. When we travel, I want them to understand that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom but that it happens in everything that they do.

For us, success means that our kids are happy, healthy, and that they are doing something that they love. I want them to be world changers. I want them do see success as offering something back to those around them instead of just taking every opportunity that is offered to them, regardless of the cost.

We are being given a chance for a reset. We were forced to slow down. We’ve been given time to reconsider what really matters in our lives. Maybe it’s time we start redefining success in a way that helps our children thrive into adulthood.

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