Sunday, September 16, 2012

What is Success?

When I was an awkward teenager, I looked at the models in my fashion magazines and the actresses on television and thought that was what success looked like.  I remember having imaginary conversations with characters from my night time soap operas I watched when I babysat. I thought if I were like them, people would respect me and I would have achieved success.

When I struggled in college, I thought I would pursue this dream a bit more.  I did it for many reasons but one of which was I secretly still desired to be “rich and famous” and have people see I made it.  In my mind's eye, I could see my face gracing the cover of magazines and showing the world I was someone.  My first foreshadowing that this view might be off the mark came when I was working at a modeling agency in Michigan.  I was the assistant to the Director as well as one of their models.  A woman, who at the time to me was old, came in.  She was maybe early to mid-forties.  She has a slightly weathered face but was otherwise lovely.  My boss, a retired model herself, told me a bit of her story.  She was one of the top models in the world during her twenties. She had traveled the globe and was featured on the cover of many well known publications.  However, those days were long behind her.  She was now a single mom struggling valiantly to make ends meet for her daughter and herself and was happy to do any kind of work available.  I played with this new data.  This was not at all how I imagined the years after hitting it big looking like.  I wasn’t ready to accept this as reality.  So I tucked the information away in a neat corner of my brain where I could find it later but it wasn’t staring me in the face each day and pursued modeling in Europe

When I was twenty and returning to the US, I knew my chances of hitting the big time were pretty much gone.  I recall going around to some modeling agencies  in Chicago for representation.  At a prominent one I was told, “At twenty, you are really too old to try to break into a new market.”  Old . . .at twenty – it was a sobering splash of cold wet reality.  I signed with a smaller agency and got work here and there.  I remember going to “cattle calls,” as they were referred to, with lots of beautiful girls.  I saw every bit of my imperfections highlighted by the perfection I saw in others.  I also witnessed the ugliness of what people were willing to do to “make it.” I missed using my intellect which had always been a big part of who I am.  So I returned to school, first part time and then full time.  I gave up on “making it as a model” which was not easy.  In the back of my mind, I reserved the chance to do so as an “older model” when I hit my late thirties.

My definition of success then shifted to professional. Unlike my first stint at college, this time I had experienced life on my own and knew I didn’t want to fail again.  I made school my priority.  I wasn’t always a natural at subjects I was not familiar with.  But I realized I could learn to do almost anything well if I focused on it – assuming it did not involve hand eye coordination but that is another post.  And I used that realization to graduate from college with a summa cum laude degree.  When I was accepted at the University of Chicago Law School, I thought I could now call myself some kind of success.  But when I started in the fall, being in the company of so many highly talented people, I again felt I didn’t quite measure up.  I also wasn’t sure, as with the models I couldn’t compete with, I really wanted to.  I had no burning passion to be a lawyer.  I liked reading, writing, solving problems and helping people.  Where did that leave me?
As I progressed from law school to working at a prestigious international law firm to working in-house,  I wanted to be recognized for professional success.  But I also wanted more. I wanted to be a good wife, mother and friend.  I revised my definition of succeeding to include those other relationships and strove to be a whole person with a balanced life.  This was a comfortable definition for a number of years.  I still found myself vacillating between wanting to be a better mother or wife and friend or wanting more professional success.  But generally I could find a tenuous balance that worked for me.

I can’t put my finger on exactly when that was not good enough.  This need for success to mean more probably germinated when I got the “C” diagnosis late one October 5th.  It may have sprouted when six months later I unceremoniously found myself needing to make sense of the phrase “your position has been eliminated.” This need was watered by looking at my husband whose roles allowed him to have a profound influence in his students and players lives.    Finally, it was fueled to blossom by the sunshine of a wide eyed little girl who, born of another mother, grabbed into my chest and held onto my heart. 
I wanted my life to have purpose.  No more did I long for fame and fortune.  I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself.  I knew I had more to give, more I could do.  I still enjoy professional success and want it to continue.  I still think being a mother is the most important role I have and raising my three amazing children is its own calling.  But I also want to give back in measure that I have been blessed.  I want my kids to see me model "paying it forward" and get involved themselves.  I now use my diligently developed professional network to meet like-minded people and to raise awareness and funds for causes dear to me.

I am beginning to understand this process was part of a natural evolution in my life. In my teens and twenties, I was trying to figure out who I was and success was anchored in that search. In my late twenties and thirties, I was building my family and my career; my view of success embraced those areas of focus. My forties freed me to hold on to family and career but open my arms and heart a little wider to also embrace parts of the world further away. My definition of family and career now include those who I don’t know and pursuits I am not paid for. These children in my daughter’s birth town enjoying a library that exists because of efforts of our friends and family brings joyful, grateful tears to my eyes.

Success for me is no longer a destination but more a lifelong pursuit of the well lived life.  It is reaching the end of my years with minimal regrets and a world that I can say is a little better place because of my efforts and those I may inspire and the achievements of my awe-inspiring children.  Wishing you all much success in your journeys!

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