How Do We Measure Success?

Working Your Way to a Great Life

Let’s say you start out as a struggling young person in search of a better life. You apply yourself in school and cram your schedule full of extracurricular activities so your resume will appear picture perfect. Between volunteering to deliver Meals on Wheels to the elderly and that flawless grade point average, you are able to set yourself apart from your peers. You always behave with decorum and take on any extra work you can to save for your education. You apply for every scrap of financial aid available and manage to cobble together enough scholarships and grants to get yourself through four years at a state college or university. You do everything the so-called “right” way, within your limited means.

Then, after the requisite years of nose-to-grindstone, you achieve what you had in mind. College diploma in hand, you begin applying to as many companies as possible in an effort to land that all-important first job. Let’s say you’re hired at one of your top picks, remaining at that new company for years. Each year, your salary and bonuses increase as your professional knowledge and connections expand. Before you know it, your bank account is flush with cash and your retirement – someday in the fuzzy but pleasant future – is all but assured. Aside from the mundane challenges that tend to crop up in life, you really have no legitimate worries.  

Then One Day…

Seemingly overnight, you find yourself in your mid-40s, bringing in enough income to support a large, tastefully decorated house and a well-dressed family. You drive an expensive car and your 2.5 children attend a fancy private school that will enable them to become successful even earlier and less strenuously than you did. You’re able to spend weeks each year on exotic vacations charging your internal battery, which, if you’re honest with yourself, really doesn’t need much charging. Congratulations: You have arrived. You are among the privileged ranks of those who have been able to make it in life by dint of sheer determination and material gain.  

But one day, seemingly out of nowhere, your idyllic way of life begins to fracture. The company at which you’ve spent almost your entire adult life undergoes a change in leadership, bringing fear and uncertainty in its wake. Stocks decline. Earnings plummet. Shareholders begin applying pressure on the board of directors. People up and down the line begin to whisper about what might occur. They quietly start making other plans because they can’t afford to risk being caught in a worst-case scenario. Will the new management group institute a reorganization or announce layoffs, all of you begin to wonder? For the first time in decades, you are faced with the possibility that your carefully crafted lifestyle might be nearing its end – or, if not its end, a level of discomfort you haven’t experienced since your lean-and-hungry 20s.

However, as a result of your years of financial fortune, you’ve become complacent enough to have built up a strong layer of denial. “It can’t happen to me” has been engraved on your consciousness by too many promotions and bonus checks, too many expensive company junkets and top-shelf business meetings at posh restaurants and clubs. Although you’re just as afraid as the other employees down the hallway about what might happen to your livelihood, you choose not to acknowledge the extent of your fears.

Right Between the Eyes

Then it happens: You arrive at work on a Friday morning, and by the end of the day a pink slip is lying starkly on your mahogany desk. After several years of working your way up your company’s ladder, you’ve become redundant. It’s time to pack up the bric-a-brac on your credenza and haul that heavy cardboard box away to an uncertain future. In the meantime, you’ve sprouted some crow’s feet, furrows have crept stealthily onto your brow and your stomach isn’t nearly as flat as it used to be. You are suddenly faced with the fact that you are middle-aged and unemployed. Your outsize mortgage note is about to come due and your children’s tuition – $14,000 a semester per child – isn’t far behind. Luckily, your BMW has been paid off, but your spouse has an ailing mother in need of nursing home care, which can cost upward of $50,000 a year. You, my friend, are in a pickle. A big one. A massive one. You can dip into your savings as a stopgap, but even with the amount you’ve invested here and socked away there, you can’t keep it all going forever.

So the question is: What will you do? Will you be able to start over – drag your visibly aging body and wounded pride on a round of job interviews that probably will lead to a professional and financial letdown – assuming you can land any interviews at all? Will you be able to compete with job candidates half your age and a lot less expensive?  Will you be able to tolerate answering to a boss at least 10 years your junior? Are you willing to rebuild your life and career almost from scratch after so many years at the same place? Can you stand the possibility of hopping from job to job in an industry that has changed and will continue to change? Will you have to sell your house and move to a lesser neighborhood? Will your children have to be placed in a struggling public school? Will your spouse begin to resent you as things continue their downward spiral? Will your children be able to cope with such a drastic change in circumstances?

Sadly, this exact scenario plays out almost every day in corporate America. People experienced it keenly at the tail end of 2007, when the Great Recession truly took hold. When the U.S. housing bubble burst from risky mortgage-backed securities and giant banks such as Lehman Brothers failed, thousands of high-earning, highly educated people saw their worlds come crashing down around them. Many were reduced to collecting long-term unemployment benefits to stay alive. In 2014 – seven years later – many still haven’t been able to reach their former potential. Some even decided to end their lives because they simply could not face the hardships before them. They discovered, quite brutally, that their priorities had been sadly and sometimes irrevocably misplaced. 

It’s Time to Think About How You Define Success

Many of us define success in terms of how much money and how many possessions we can accumulate, and how quickly. But when that happy, superficial bubble bursts, as it so often does – through divorce, faulty investments, poor choices or even market forces that can’t be foreseen or controlled – we must be prepared not only to face the consequences, but to find a way around and through them. Perhaps it’s cynical, but nothing lasts forever; good things almost always come to an end. When the inevitable happens, it is up to us to respond in ways that not only help us survive, but allow us to build a bridge to better times ahead.

The past is gone. The future is unknown. So what does that leave us? What we really have is a series of future moments that will be defined by a series of choices, a chain of events that lead us forward to something we can only imagine until it becomes real. The only thing we can do is try to make sure each step forward is a productive one: that it will lead us out of whatever mess we’re in and toward a lasting solution. A lasting solution is only found by keeping our priorities straight – being cognizant of what really, truly matters – and being very selective in our choices – doing everything we can to safeguard what matters. Saving for a rainy day entails a lot more than squirreling acorns (or dollars) in a secret cubby. It means being constantly vigilant and staying at least three steps ahead of any given scenario. Plan A is never enough. Plan B also must be in play if we expect to maintain what we have or improve on what we don’t. It is important to be prepared, and it is even more important to remain strong. But, regardless of the circumstances, we have a new energy on our side if we will just recognize it and put it to work.

“To be thrown on one’s own resources is to be cast into the lap of fortune, for our faculties then undergo a development and display an energy of which they were previously without.
Benjamin Franklin

This is a time when we need to consider our answer to that very important question: How do we define and measure success? Many of us define success through material things and material possessions. However, one major advantage of a difficult time like the one described above is it affords us the opportunity to re-evaluate how we choose to define or measure success in our lives. And, if we have not yet encountered these kinds of circumstances – it is still an important time to start thinking and planning ahead.

I would say that success has a lot less to do with our net worth or the house we live in and a lot more to do with how giving and caring our day-to-day activities really are. It’s not really about what we get, but almost entirely about what we give to others. It’s really not about caring for ourselves, but all about caring for those around us. It can involve some big things, but, for the most part, success is determined by how we treat each other and what we do for the people around us.

Real success is primarily determined by the choices we have made to take care of “the little things” in life.  It’s a combination of many smaller things, but, for the most part, it’s determined by the extent to which we have improved the lives of the people and the world around us.

  • It’s the sincere greeting we exchange with our widowed neighbor, and the times we go over to check on her to make sure she has the things she needs;
  • It’s the time and attention we give to our children, helping them with their homework, sharing new places and experiences with them and working hard to help them develop into giving and caring people;
  • It’s in the effort we make to do what is right even when no one is watching; to be able to look ourselves in the eye and know that we have done the right and honest thing;
  • It’s responding to that calling in our heart to do that thing that we always wanted to do and that interests us so much; it’s listening to that voice inside of us and following the path that seems to be intended for us;
  • It’s letting love guide our lives; it’s volunteering to help others less fortunate; it’s becoming actively involved in an important community project or even stopping to provide the means for a homeless person to eat a good meal;
  • It’s in getting outside of our own cares and realizing the cares and needs of other people are just as important, and …
  • It’s all these little things, and the many more that we can do for others.

Ultimately, we’re all in this together. So when jobs and relationships go away, it is vitally important to remember – always – that those losses do not define us. Jobs can be replaced and new attachments can be formed. Too many people allow their personal identities to become so entwined with their daily tasks and possessions that when they lose them they feel they have lost themselves. I have been there; I know those feelings and that process. But having come out the other end, I can say with certainty that such things aren’t the end of the world. They’re just the beginning of something new and, usually, better. If you can find the patience to get past setbacks, you will look back and begin to see that these troughs were just points along the way. 

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” Helen Keller

Written By Lindsay Jones 

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“If I had known what it would be like to have it all, I would have been willing to settle for a lot less.” Lily Tomlin