Defining Success


(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?


8 thoughts on “Defining Success

  1. Hmmmm…this has been a bit more of a stumper for me than I thought it was going to be. I don’t tend to think too much in terms of success and failure. I do try to be someone I can be proud of, and encourage those qualities in my children: honesty, responsibility, caring for others, etc.

    I try to keep most of their tasks in perspective because I know–especially now that I’m going through everything a third time with Clara–that the stakes are pretty low on most things for which they’re responsible. We should provide our kids with lots of opportunities for success, so they can experience what that feels like. Then, hopefully, when they fall short, they’ll own that feeling and take steps next time to do better.

    As they get older, the stakes do get higher. With Meredith, I’m trying to plant some seeds to get her thinking of her future, and to start visualizing goals that are attractive and attainable. I’m not aware at this moment what her current scores are in her classes; I last checked a couple of weeks ago and she’s holding down A’s and B’s in her classes. But just today she was discussing Harry Truman with Keith and I said that I was glad she was learning so much in her History class because I personally have gaps in my education in that area. I figure she must feel pride in being able to discuss things intelligently. Here is a small example of success.

    My first year in college, I had to read a book called College Thinking. (I can’t find it right now so I can’t give you the author’s name.) The lesson in this book that really impacted me was to enjoy the process of getting ones education. Enjoy that process because if you only focus on the end product–the degree, achievement, employment, buying a big house, etc–you run the risk of the final attainment of that goal falling short of your expectations. The author pointed out that people often focus solely on achieving a milestone, only to find that achievement to be a let-down. Imagine if you fill your life with such ambitions, you might end up feeling pretty empty. The joy is instead to be found in the process.

    Ultimately, success is leading a satisfying, full life. That means different things to different people. To me, it means involvement in activities I care about, making goals and working towards them–but, most of all, appreciating the rewards inherent in the process.

    • Living is about process rather than product — thanks for putting it so succinctly, Chris. I think that’s why I struggle with the word success in terms of a lifetime. Life isn’t a product, and once it’s done, what’s the point of labeling it with terms like success and failure?

      I may do some searching for that book, Chris. I could have used that in my product-oriented youth.

      • Hi Sarah! I never got an update from WordPress that you responded to my comment. I just now happened to see a post in my yahoo mail, and curiosity brought me back here to see if it was something further you wrote on this topic. Anyhow, I remember I really enjoyed discussing this with you here 🙂 Thanks for the reply!

  2. Your sentence: ‘ (I)…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’ gave me a good laugh.

    I guess every parent has sort like worries and knows about socks! 😉
    I don’t think we ever use the word success. Progress is a much better working tool for us.
    Kids just like to have a good time while still being under the wings of their caring parents. But I think what you mean: there are days you need to take them under your wings and warm them with love and care. And there are days that they need a bit of a push in to the direction of becoming independent.

    • I’m glad to know I’m not the only mom with a sock dispersal problem and concerns about future basement dwellers. I like the focus on progress over success, but having a 13 year old has raised my progress concerns. I’m sure he was more “other” centered a few years back, but the early teen years are hardly a time to look for progress on that front. We’re all in progress around here. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  3. Hear, hear to all you wrote about success not being how many APs or what SAT scores you have. Emerson’s poem (or whoever wrote it’s poem) is one of my favorites. I yearn to keep my goals simple. To me success is being a good person. With all the curveballs (and vain, ambitious oddballs) that the world throws at you today, I’d count myself a successful mom if my kiddo turned out to be a kind-hearted young man lol. That’s about all I can hope for.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s