Each time I rewatch Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition of “Little Women,” there are a number of lines that hit me in my gut. One of which is when Amy, exhausted from her painting pursuits, says “I want to be great or nothing.”
It’s a fire that resonates with me almost too well. It’s the spark of ambition that motivates me, but it’s also the crippling fear that makes anything short of a very specific measurement of success not enough.
During my senior year of college, I was the managing editor for my college newspaper. On a small campus, it felt like a big deal. I’m a natural leader, and it was a job that felt right for me, even if it often left me sleep-deprived. I graduated with this shaky confidence, ready to go anywhere and do anything, so long as it was something I’d be excited to tell people about.
With this wide horizon in front of me, I found myself stuck—perhaps by some combination of being unprepared, cocky or unrealistic—in the possibility of all I could do. I did not really know what I actually wanted besides an admirable title on my Instagram bio.
A few miscellaneous jobs and disappointments later, I found myself rooted in a city I didn’t think I’d be in, with a job I wouldn’t have imagined, conflicted and growing restless all at once. I am a success-oriented person, certainly not always in good ways. This was perhaps my first real reckoning with it. There was, I realized, a vision in my head of what success meant to me, and it was a metric I was failing to meet.
There was a vision in my head of what success meant to me, and it was a metric I was failing to meet.
Whether or not you consider yourself ambitious or success-oriented, we all have an idea of “the good life” that serves as the destination we work toward. Truthfully, this isn’t bad. It can be an inspiration, a picture that reminds us of where or who we want to be. It can, however, also be a burden—an unrealistic bar that we’re constantly striving to meet.
The difference—and the freedom—comes in being able to expand our definitions of “success.” In the past year, with the world shut down, plans canceled and options to travel limited, we may have found ourselves staring our disappointments square in the face, unable to be distracted by our usual amusements. What we were left with was a life that didn’t match the picture of success we once imagined. Perhaps, as in my personal experience, the strain on our mental (or physical) health even showed us new limitations.
The difference—and the freedom—comes in being able to expand our definitions of “success.”
Redefining success does not mean throwing out dreams or insisting that the little everyday victories are the extent of our accomplishments. It simply means imagining a future that gratefully receives what has been accomplished today and looks forward to what that could mean for tomorrow. This allows us to receive our own path, rather than pursuing someone else’s.
In the age of social media, there is a temptation to copy the success of others. We are looking for the hack, the cause-and-effect that gets us to that point, with that career, with that house and with those followers. However, when we think of what inspires us, it’s not the life-hack or short-cut someone is trying to sell us on Instagram. It’s the unexpected story of those who worked faithfully, dreamed uniquely, overcame and carried themselves and their skills with purpose.
Typically, these are also the people who are the most content with their lives. They are unconcerned with ladder-climbing or striving. Instead, they use their energy toward leveraging what they have and not worrying about what they don’t.
Our day-to-day life may fall short of our big and sparkling dreams, but it is not a consolation prize. It is our gift and our privilege to steward it well. There is purpose in every moment, and to misjudge any moment along our journeys as less than success is to miss the value and humanity of the present moment and opportunities.
Our day-to-day life may fall short of our big and sparkling dreams, but…it is our gift and our privilege to steward it well.
Most days, I wrestle with the concept of success. I write this from a very tiny living room in a cheap apartment in a sweet, small city. I quit my day job last fall to take up freelance work full-time. At least once a week when someone asks me, “How’s work going?,” I tell them all the things I wish I was doing better.
I continue to be moved by the words of the character Amy March, “I want to be great, or nothing.” I’ve grown to realize “great” exists everywhere, in every season and the road is not as narrow (or glamorous) as we have been led to believe. So I often take time—alongside putting together beautiful vision boards—to remind myself that my story will not look like anyone else’s and that is a good and freeing thing.
Success is not limited to what we can imagine but to our willingness to gratefully and faithfully accept who we are and what we have to offer with determination, vision and purpose.
How has your definition of success changed in time? Why is it important not to compare our career journeys with others?
Image via Madeline Mullenbach