(Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but likely not his)
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty,
to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
A recent thread on an email group addressed the question of success, adding another mental meal for my already churning mind. I’ve been full of doubt lately. Doubt about my children’s abilities, doubt about ability to teach two twice exceptional kids both stimulating their voracious minds while patiently nurturing their lagging executive function skills. Doubt that they’ll be successful adults. Doubt about my success as a mom.
My definition of successful may not be yours, and that’s fine for both of us. My definition of success for my older differs from that definition for my younger, and that’s okay, too. More important, and more problematic on a day-to-day basis, is that my definition of success differs from my sons’ definitions. And all of our definitions likely differ what society, the schools, and the media tell us about success.
What is success, at least to me? In education, it is learning how to learn, how to delve into a subject and explore it to one’s satisfaction and need. It is finding joy in learning but persisting in the task even when that joy isn’t yet evident.
Success is using gifts and talents to better the world for someone else, even if that someone else is “just” your child.
Success is finding a cozy spot in this big world where you have friends you love and who love you. It is the ability to take the energy from that cozy spot out to the not as cozy world, carrying that warmth and love to others.
Success is knowing yourself and loving yourself anyway. It is the ability to recognize your shortcomings, try to improve upon them, and being compassionate with yourself the whole while.
What isn’t success? It’s not SAT and ACT scores that meet SAT and ACT perfection levels. It’s not amassing loads of AP classes or finishing college a year or more early. It’s not admission to an Ivy League school. If any of those things happen, they’ll happen because a child willed them and will be duly celebrated (except the Ivy League admission, unless it comes with a scholarship). Those may be successes, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient for success.
Success isn’t measured by grades or numbers in bank accounts, and while Nobel prize winners would definitely be called successful in their fields, a successful life contains more than a stunning discovery or brilliant theory. Success is more personal and far less fleeting than a test score, a sports record, or even the finding of a medical break through. Success in the world is empty without love, kindness, and compassion in one’s heart.
I believe all of that. Really.
But some days (today included), I can’t remember how basic true success in life is. Some days (today included), their success in later life and my success as a homeschooling mom seems to hinge entirely their ability to finish a math review or submit a complete lab report in the correct format. Those same days, I become a surly taskmaster, forgetting all I know in my deep heart about true success, and worry that they’ll live in my basement at age 31, still pouring over Star Wars miniature cards and leaving socks all over the furniture. I project their rather age appropriate yet less-than-endearing habits decades down the road, and panic.
Filled with a shifting mixture of remorse and stubborn justification, I sit with my anger and fear and try to let it pass. It always passes. Eventually. Then I move on, remember we’re all human, that we all can change and grow, that loving them compassionately while teaching them the skills they need to give that same love to others is my most important job. We’ll all be okay. We can all find success.
How do you define success in the larger sense? How do you teach your children what success really is?