There are few things I find more challenging in in my incessant inner dialogue than getting clear about the concept of success. The larger culture I live in and the smaller culture of my family of origin both exert a strong daily tug on my ideas about success. Like the ocean tides being pulled this way and that by the moon’s gravity, my ideas of success seem to be inordinately influenced by the cultural force field most activated in me at any given time. Every time I think of someone earning several multiples of what I make in her or his work, and each time I wonder if I should be spending more or less on material things, it seems I find myself back in the inner conversation: Wait a minute, what is success anyway? Am I allowed to define it for myself, or must I try to live up to cultural definitions that color my thinking about it the way garlic flavors a pickle that’s soaked a long time in garlic brine? Tired of this inner rehashing, I decided recently to write down my own definition of success and how I want to measure it.
So. . . (drum roll) . . .here is my definition of success in five words: Success is being Self employed.
Notice the capital ‘S’ in Self. This definition means that I want my life to be used for purposes larger than my self. I want to imagine that all of my energies are ultimately in service of a larger source of creativity, consciousness, compassion, and love. Even if I can never prove it, I want to live as if Self can flow through self. Some might choose to equate Self with God, others might prefer to highlight the mystery inherent in whatever is larger than self by simply calling it Self.
After arriving at a succinct definition to which I will return repeatedly to burn through the fog of inner confusion about success, I wanted to go one step further. The song “Measure a Year” from Rent includes this lyric: “How do you measure/ measure a year? Measure in love…” How do I want to measure success? First, I want to get clear on how I do not want to measure it. I will not measure it in dollars earned, saved, spent, invested, or left for my heirs when I am gone. I will not measure it in hours worked, promotions received, awards given, or fame or prestige achieved. I will not measure it in quantity of books written or sold, nor in houses or cars owned. I will not measure it in number of children or grandchildren. I will not measure it in bucket list items checked off or vacations taken. I will not measure it on a train, I will not measure it on a plane! (a nod to Dr. Seuss)
Instead, I will measure the success of my endeavors to be Self employed in the cultivation of inner peace and joy; in fidelity to daily meditation; in maintaining awareness of balance and gratitude; in expanding my capacity for loving relationships with my spouse, children, friends, and others; in the pursuit of work that allows my deep gladness to address the world’s deep hunger (a nod to Frederick Buechner); in living simply in a way that respects the earth; and in caring for my body and spirit as primary instruments of my Self employment. The old inner cultural definition of success tells me all these things are nice extras, but they do not constitute success. To which I can now say: Your definition or mine?