by Elaine Kindle, Ph.D, MA, LCSW, BCD
"How can I tell if I'm successful," Maggie asked the group of women surrounding her. "I don't see myself as successful, and I don't know that I ever will be." Forty-two year old Maggie had owned her own business for over ten years, and it was holding its own despite a difficult economy.
"What does success mean to you?" Pamela looked toward Maggie, and then went on to address her own question. "To me it has more to do with my job. Sure, I enjoy teaching, but there's more to it than that. "
"What do you mean?" came a quiet voice from the corner. "I'm just a housewife, another 'Mrs. John Doe', a nobody from nowhere. I've been married 15 years; I'm raising three teenagers. Not exactly the picture of success."
"So what is success, anyway? Let's find out." Belinda went to a bookshelf and pulled a dictionary from its shelves. Turning to the "Ss" she found what she was looking for. "It says here that success is: "The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the satisfactory accomplishment of something attempted; the attainment of wealth, position, or the like; a successful performance or achievement."
"Isn't that interesting," Sara interjected. "It says that success is not limited to wealth and position. So what's going on here?"
The group of women above represent the thoughts and struggles of many women like them, who are not clear what success means. They think success is limited to money, power, and status. As a result, they do not recognize that they themselves are successful. Maggie, Pamela, "Mrs. John Doe, Belinda, and Sara each is successful in her own way. Yet they are confused and uncertain about the meaning of success. They are surprised to discover that success is much more than the popular definition this culture suggests. Wealth and position are only one part of the meaning. "Favorable attempts or endeavors, the satisfactory accomplishment of something attempted, and successful performance or achievement," all mark success in a person's life. Success is more than a career. It is a state of mind, an enjoyment of living life in a manner that is satisfactory to the person.
So much of this culture emphasizes success as defined by work, so it is important to stop and reflect on this principle for a moment.
One thing that has been discovered time and time again through scholarly work is what those who live it, already know in their hearts to be true. Namely, that men and women view work success differently. For example, a questionnaire given to college students recently asked them to define success. Women defined success more frequently in terms of family; men defined it more in terms of personal accomplishments and self-development. This questionnaire speaks to a major gender difference that tends to show itself more clearly in the workplace. Men, from an early age, are taught to be independent, competitive, to keep their feelings to themselves; while women are taught to be dependent, to nurture others, to express emotions. Much of women's fear of success stems from the fear of not being related to another person. Irene P. Stiver, a researcher at The Stone Center at Wellesley College, points out that "Success for women often carries with it a threat to feeling connected with others." She maintains that "women need to feel entitled to pursue their work interests without feeling held back by beliefs that the needs of others are inherently always more important and valid, and without feeling selfish and destructive."
The concept of work success is clearly one that needs to be considered, challenged, and opened to further discussion and positive change. However, success extends beyond the workplace. It extends even beyond the accomplishment of personal achievements. Success quietly surrounds you every day, perhaps without your recognizing it.
Waking up in the morning is a success, so is getting out of bed and being able to dress yourself. The ability to read and write, to add and subtract, to drive a car: all are major skills that tend to be dismissed as trivial because so many others have these abilities. And yet many others do not. Raising children, keeping a home, having interests that peak your curiosity and highlight your own unique personality, all are hallmarks of success in life.
Yet people, especially women, tend to think these skills as not special, and not to give themselves credit for their accomplishment.
Vera, for example, tended to undermine her successes. She finally got her A.A. degree after working at it for ten years. During those ten years she raised two children, worked part time, and helped her husband with his company's bookkeeping. She resolutely kept to attending classes, one after the other, semester after semester, year after year. But Vera says of her success, "I only have my A.A." Instead of giving herself credit for this major success, she has minimized it.
Kris experienced a different kind of success. Divorced when her two boys were still young, she managed to keep her family together in spite of the poverty they experienced through lack of child support or alimony. Kris, herself, after several attempts at work, needed to collect permanent disability. Her paranoid schizophrenia kept getting in her way of functioning. Yet she managed to get her children to school and to attend their events. Eventually she pulled her resources together enough to move to another state where the cost of living, and pace of life would be better suited for her and her children. Kris not only was successful, she was heroic in her attempts to keep her family together.
Many of you are successful as well, and are even heroic in your attempts. It is essential that you recognize and appreciate your own successes in life. Success builds upon success. And failure contributes to success if you let it.
For example, Babe Ruth is one of the most successful hitters in history. What most people don't realize is that he also had more strike-outs than most other hitters.
Success and failure go hand in hand. Failure can point you to success, or it can scare you away. The choice is yours. You already have many successes to your name; more lie ahead. More than half a century ago, Napoleon Hill wisely observed that "What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve." It's true. Try it. You can do it.