Redefining What Success Means
Last May I graduated from Lehigh University with my Bachelor’s degree. Although I find the graduation ceremony itself just a bit ridiculous, it was a nice way to symbolize all the hard work we put in over the four years in college; the sleepless nights, the early classes, the last-minute essays and the many exams, assignments and projects.
It truly was a very meaningful experience that I am deeply grateful for, but it was also a confusing time where I had to figure out who I am. The most important thing in college is to answer that question: who are you? But, you answer that question only to help you answer this next question: who do you want to become?
Although some colleges aren’t like this, Lehigh is very competitive when it comes to measuring success after college. In a way it is a great thing because statistically students are very highly motivated and go off in the real world to become CEOs, PhD’s, entrepreneurs, famous journalists, businessmen and woman, politicians, professors, artists, athletes, and the list goes on and on.
But these teachings and expectations shape how the students at Lehigh view success. From day one Lehigh shoves its wealthiest, most famous and accredited alumni in your face and says to students; ‘look this could be you,’ ‘they were right here in your shoes once,’ ‘you can do anything.’
Now don’t get me wrong, having role models to look up to is important. Having a source of inspiration, especially from someone who attended your university has a lot of value. My only problem with these role models is that they weren’t diverse enough. And no I’m not talking about demographically diverse - even though that is definitely an issue too - I’m talking about the fact that all their success stories are too similar.
Lee Iacocca, McClintic and Marshall, Marty Baron, Charlie Dent, Cathy Engelbert, Stephanie Ruhle, Michael Smerconish, CJ McCollum….I look up to every single one of them and I am especially lucky to call one of them my boss and mentor. But, their success stories all define success in the same way: fame and fortune. Of course they had to work extremely hard, be unique, creative and good at their craft, and use that skill to reach their success, but it is the same formula and similar outcome just applied to different fields.
And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d argue that every single one of the people listed above has used their success for the betterment of mankind. By using their success to provide others more opportunities and more generally by providing key products and services they helped, and continue to help, the world advance in the right direction.
But Lehigh doesn’t boast about the other 99% of its graduates, the people that don’t necessarily make the most money or make it on the news, yet live very successful and happy lives. And this isn’t just a Lehigh thing, it is a national trend.
A brand new study called The Success Index, which was conducted by Populace and Gallup, measures how Americans view and define success and how they are surprisingly rejecting traditional markers of American success.
How do we define success?
That is probably one of the most important questions you will ever get asked.
The answer is a reflection of American culture and what Americans dream of every single day, what they aspire to be, both as individuals and as a collective group. The definition of success in a society reveals the character of a society, what that society values most and what it most wants. And this poll suggests that most Americans feel like our culture is out of alignment.
So, let’s break down some of the key findings from the report:
“There is a stark difference between how Americans define success and how they believe others in society define success. Most Americans believe others in society define success in status-oriented and zero-sum terms, but less than 10% apply this standard to their personal definition of success. Americans believe that others in society would say being famous is the most important factor for success. Fame, however, is the least important factor in people’s personal views of success. Americans also believe others in society have a one-size-fits-all definition of success, concentrated on status (45.9%), followed by education (19.8%) and finances (8.8%).”
Basically this means that American individuals perceive that their society ranks fame as the most valued aspect of success, when in fact Americans rank fame as the least important aspect of success when they’re asked about their personal definition. How is the average individual definition and average collective definition of success so diametrically contradicting? Why do we think society values fame so much, but we as individuals value fame the least?
My quick answer to that is that the age of Instagram and social media is granting more and more people access to wealth because of opportunities to become ‘Instagram famous.’ I hope the younger generations learn that being famous isn’t what it means to be successful and that it isn’t even important. Fame can come with success, but most success comes without fame. Just because the whole world doesn’t know about your successes doesn’t mean you’ve been unsuccessful.
In fact we know that sometimes fame can actually lead people to become unsatisfied and unhappy with their lives, the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” type of situation.
Furthermore the study concludes that…
“Americans have very diverse definitions of personal success that are highly unique and cover a wide variety of life domains. The study found that there is no “average” definition of success. Instead, everyone tends to have a highly unique, personal view of success. The most important domains in Americans’ personal definitions of success are education (17.1%), relationships (15.6%), and character (15.4%).”
This statistic is music to my ears, because of course we all have diverse definitions of what personal success is; we are all different, come from different places, raised in different cultures, why would we all have the same aspirations?
After all this, it is important to take into account the fact that the Americanization of different countries around the world will affect how other cultures define success. Thus, it is more than a domestic issue, it is an international discussion about what we as humans value the most.
Generally speaking I feel like the more capitalistic or neoliberal the world gets the more success will be defined by numbers in our bank accounts. Realistically those numbers mean something, the more digits in your bank account the more freedom you have with your life. We see it time and time again, rich people can afford most things, healthcare, education, vacations, they can even afford things that are not on sale for people who are not in their income bracket, like immunity from the law. Yes, believe it or not, some rich people can practically get away with crimes, as they have been doing this whole time. Not saying that all rich people are criminals, they’re just less likely to suffer criminal punishment if they are participating in illegal activities.
Even though I know how important money is and I acknowledge that my ancestors did everything they could just to provide me a more stable economic future, including my parents who immigrated with me to the U.S. when I was a baby for that reason, it was those same parents who taught me what success really means: having lots of meaningful relationships.
Although I am young I already know that the value of my friendships and relationships is what will define my success in the years ahead, not the money in my bank account. The way I see it is that a ‘poor man’ with a network of supportive and caring friends could be ‘richer’ and definitely more successful than the wealthiest man in the world. What’s the point of success, or any achievement for that matter, if you can’t share it with the people you love?
More than that success for me will be measured by my impact on the world. Did I help people? Was I there for my friends when they needed me and when they didn’t? Was I kind to people everyday? Did I give back to my community? Did I pave a path to success for people behind me? Did I pull up and provide opportunities for others to succeed with me? If the answers to these questions is yes, I will be successful.
There is this myth that the most wealthy or famous are the only people in society who are successful, but I think the only thing that makes those people is lonely, because they don’t have many people to share that success with. If I ever become rich or famous I will not be successful unless I support the whole network of people around me and lift up as many people as I can.
To conclude, even though I am now a college graduate I have still not entirely figured out who I am and who I want to become (and that’s OK) but, there is one thing I know for sure: that I will continuously be growing and learning and my dreams and aspirations will change along the way, but as long as I have my big network of supportive friends and family I will be successful no matter what happens.
I am the one holding the pencil and I will define and redefine success for myself along the way, as we already do in our lives every day.