We Americans like to believe we are independent thinkers. But when it comes to the way we think about success, it can be hard to leave behind the powerful influence of our peers, colleagues, parents, spouses, bosses, talking heads, not to mention your dentist, and that elderly lady who judged your three-year-old for opening the crackers in the checkout line.
Everyone has an opinion about how to be successful, and everyone’s opinion seems to point to you doing it wrong.
I mean, let’s be honest, people who achieve traditional success in their jobs, sports, and hot dog eating contests make more money, drive nicer cars, and receive way more likes on their witty tweets than those of use who step away from traditional notions of success. And whether or not you admit it, watching those “likes” add up when you post something about “success” tickles the reward center of your brain in the most delightful way. So does getting the approving nod from that old lady at the grocery store
But beyond giving up on some brain tickling, traditional marks of success are often necessary to accomplish important things, like say, keeping your job so you can keep your children accessorized with fidget spinners. And housed.
For a project exploring the challenges and gifts of choosing both ambitious professional lives and engaged parenting, I have been conducting individual interviews. In one interview, assistant professor Tracy disclosed that she is well aware that her approach to mothering has caused her to define success a little differently than most of her colleagues do. She knows that her choice to hang out with her kids when they are not in childcare is not terribly relevant for the committee that will be reviewing her materials. She recognizes that securing that promotion might, as a consequence, be a tough fight.
The surprise, though, is that while Tracy admits she falls short of certain traditional marks of success—papers with thousands of citations or national and international fame within her field—she feels confident that she is achieving success in other important, and sometimes surprising ways.
Tracy loved Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s essay on advice for living. Ginsburg says, “My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her… Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”
Like Justice Ginsberg, Tracy observes all sorts of ways that being an academic makes her feel more successful as a parent; and vice versa. This concept is known as work-family enrichment. When she receives rejections in her professional role, Tracy finds that being with her children helps her to reframe the negativity and put it into perspective. On the other hand, work gives her a nice break from childrearing, an opportunity to use a different part of her brain, and a chance to feel industrious.
Still, Tracy can’t just let go of traditional marks of success if she hopes to climb the academic ladder and stay on top of good enough parenting practices.
Her experience brings up the question: how can we think independently enough to define success for ourselves—without losing the thread of what our professional settings, or our parenting communities sometimes require?
A core concept called psychological flexibility comes in handy when answering this question. Psychological flexibility is the ability to sustain or change behavior based on a combination of awareness of the moment and clarity about our values. Psychological flexibility allows individuals to adapt to situations, shift mindsets and behaviors, maintain effective balance between important life domains, and be open and willing to commit to behaviors that are consistent with the things we believe in. This ability is a fundamental building block of psychological health.
So rather than independently defining success at all costs, or relying exclusively on cultural norms, you might strike a balance. You can acknowledge that there are certain external standards of success you need to meet to stay out of trouble with your boss and your kids’ school. But you can also take a mindful pause now and again to reflect on what you value most in life. Clarity can open you up to making sure you find time, energy, and attention to give to the things that make your life uniquely fulfilling for you.
Tracy, for example, feels like she can get caught up in comparing her accomplishments to those of her impressive colleagues. But she reminds herself that she values spending one-on-one time with each of her three kids after a day of research, writing, and teaching. So, after she gets her kids from school and daycares she puts away her work and makes time to cuddle each one in the hours leading up to their bedtimes. For Tracy, this balance allows her to hit requirements for her job advancement, and it allows her to make time to feel connected with each of her children on a daily basis. Maybe Tracy won’t be the most famous researcher in her field, at least while her kids are young. And certainly by working, she’ll miss out on valuable time with her kids. But by her own definition, arrived at independently, she has achieved remarkable success.