Recently I’ve felt like I’ve been in the middle of a quarter-life crisis – which is particularly frustrating because I have a wonderful family, I enjoy my job, and I’m working on some exciting side projects. But despite all of the blessings in my life, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that something is missing. That I’m not on the right path or that I’m forgetting something. But is that really the problem? Am I really missing some fundamental experience that my peers are getting that if I had it would accelerate me to “success?”
No. I don’t think so. I think the problem is that I’m in my mid-20s and still haven’t really defined what “success” looks like for ME and what I need to do to be happy and fulfilled. We go through our whole lives in school getting graded and evaluated and compared to benchmarks, that when we hit the “real world” we can sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the sudden switch from meticulously calculated success to nebulous, undefined success (I talk about the technology trying to solve this issue a bit here). Sure, there are HR evaluations and mid-term reviews, but these relate to such a small piece of the pie. It’s like getting graded on one class, but not knowing why we’re taking that class – or even at which school we’re taking it! Growing up we know that in high school we need to take rigorous classes and to do well in them to get into a good college. Then in college we pick a major and work with an advisor who tells us which classes to take and with professors who hand us rubrics that tell us exactly what we need to do to pass/fail/excel. At the end of four years we get diplomas and maybe some fancy cords, attend some ceremonies and get a few pats on the back, and all in all we know that we succeeded – and based on our grades we know to what degree we succeeded.
Then what? Now there are so many different roads to take, so many different ways to be successful. And the definition of success once we leave college is largely based on who our peers are and what is going on in our environment.
For me personally, having gone to school in Silicon Valley, I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt some pressure to work for a rapidly growing startup or to found a billion dollar company. There have even been several articles written on this issue. This article from 2013 talks about Stanford’s close connections with the Bay Area’s tech industry, and questions lightly whether this strong tie is necessarily a good thing (let me just stop here really quickly and say that as a Comm major who has worked at startups, I do not agree that the ties are negative. By introducing students to these business resources early on the school is allowing them to do some major good – I’m simply pointing out how the culture of your environment can affect your worldview. I’m exploring how we can learn to understand where our thoughts and insecurities are coming from and how we can re-define our own version of success, not getting into the politics of Stanford’s Silicon Valley relationship). I think the first paragraph actually sums up how I have felt on a somewhat regular basis lately:
Stanford is like a man sailing a beautiful new boat who looks around and sees his friends in yachts.
Sometimes I’m out on the water, navigating my own beautiful boat through the calm and rough waters of my life, when suddenly I peer over my shoulder and see one of my friends kicking back on the nose of their yacht, sipping Ace and letting their crew manage the nitty-gritty details of powering through the waves. One minute I’d been quite enjoying myself on my perfectly good – if not quite above average – boat, when all of a sudden my paint doesn’t seem quite as shiny, the clever name emblazoned on the side not so witty.
Then there is this article. I think the title says it all:
At Stanford, If You Haven’t Started a Company by Graduation, You’re a Failure
But it’s even more than that. It’s if you haven’t started a world-renown, billion dollar, earth shattering company you’re a failure. I graduated early and started a company. But it was a local company. And it didn’t work. So now I feel like a failure. Never mind all of the life changing experiences I received, the real world MBA I fought through, the business savvy and creativity I developed. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not in the (national) news. I can’t throw big fancy parties for my friends and family for no reason. And when it’s not about starting a company, it’s about working for a company that is doing all of these things.
Let’s skip ahead. Yes, because of my personal interests in tech and business, my peers, and now my fiance’s job at a very successful startup, I’m still entrenched in the above pressures. But now, having switched to higher education, I’m feeling a new set of pressures. Now it’s not about how much money you’re making, it’s about which degrees you have. It’s not about what your options are, it’s about if you’re tenured. As someone who did not grow up in an academic family, these pressures are completely new to me – and quite honestly, they’re confusing!
I recently had a conversation with a very intelligent Professor who is married to another very intelligent Professor. They are both academics, they come from families of academics, and their children are all academics. Then there’s me, coming from a family of dancers, athletes, and small town folk, many of which didn’t even attend college. Why? Because if you train your whole life as a classical ballerina, your vision of success is not to get in to Stanford and earn a PhD, it is to travel to Europe and dance with world-renown dance companies. So now I’m entrenched in this world of degrees and classes, but in a much different way than in college. In college, you’re compared to your peers by your grades, but no one is really throwing those around everywhere. You get an A, you’re personally happy. You get a C, you feel a little sad but it’s not posted any where (that’s actually illegal), no one asks you about it, so you move on and try harder and you learn. You are still judged by your other amazing qualities that are just as worthy – if not even more worthy – than how well you did on a test.
However now, working in higher education, it’s all about if you have your Masters, where you got your PhD. You can’t even apply for some jobs or get a raise unless you have a little piece of paper that deems you worthy. It’s not about how great you would be at teaching that class, or that you could do a job better than anyone else. If you haven’t gotten your education formally, then you can’t even be considered for certain things. Unlike in Silicon Valley, where kids are dropping out left and right to pursue a killer idea, to use their natural abilities to excel, higher education wants the opposite. A formal education where you have completed a set number of requirements to prove you are worthy.
Let’s pause for a second. Can you see how environment is shaping our views on success? How it influences the way we perceive other people and rate accomplishments? For someone like me who has traveled to all corners of the life experience vs. traditional education matrix, this can be really confusing! Should I have stayed an extra two quarters at Stanford and gotten my masters? But I didn’t want to, and all my friends were leaving to join cool, young companies! Should I have picked an industry and just stayed with it to tick that “years experience” box? But I have friends who have already been in the news for success in athletics, research, AND business! What’s a girl to do?
Well, the answer is FORGET IT ALL! Forget ALL of the predefined notions about what you “should” be doing and what makes you “important.” As my incredibly intelligent and amazing boss pointed out to me today, I need to figure out what success means to ME. What do I want to accomplish? What makes me happy? What are the things that I find exciting in life? That’s the best thing about life! Is that it is different for each person. We all have our different needs and wants and should follow those desires!
So that’s the question that I’m looking to solve in part two of this post: how do you define success? What are the tips and tricks to figuring out what you want to do for yourself?