What first comes to mind when you think of “success”? Do you visualize a certain image for what success looks like? Or maybe words such as “money” or “status” lie at the center of that concept.

In a world where money seems to be the key in making it go round, the majority of the people living in it wake up every day to work towards our own goals of success. Whether we battle traffic every morning to get to work, walk to class to earn our degree and hopefully increase our chances in achieving a higher level of success, or navigate to our next interview in hopes of taking the next step in our careers, we all work to ensure that we put ourselves in the best position possible to succeed.

But what does that mean? For many of us, especially in the US, our idea of success revolves largely around money, how we’re able to budget so that we can enjoy the freedom we have to spend it, and earn enough to live certain lifestyles and just collect stuff.

Stuff like houses, cars, clothes, toys – anything we can accumulate in mass amounts to measure our success and have something to show for it.

This pursuit in earning these measures of success starts when we first enter the workforce and quickly becomes a race to see who can earn what and how much in as short amount of time as possible. For those of us just showing up at the starting line, this race can feel daunting as we see everyone who already seems so far ahead of us!

It was no different for me when I first started out just a few years ago after graduating with my Communication degree. After four years of school – which included 3 years in the Communication honors society on campus (2 years as Treasurer), an internship and almost 2 years at my first corporate job – I finally graduated feeling pretty ahead of the game, ready to start my post-grad career and earn the “big bucks”.

Little did I know that, despite all of those accomplishments, the next few years would be the craziest and wildest roller coaster ride I’ve ever been on. While I yearned for the stability that I thought would come with earning my degree, for answers that I thought would somehow miraculously appear now that I had made it to “the other side”, I seemed to receive the opposite.

I had more questions about what I wanted in my career and my life than I did while I was in school! And while I thought that things would “calm down” now that I didn’t have homework to do and exams to study for, life just seemed to be all over the place.

Looking back on these first years as a college grad, while I do feel that I’ve learned so much in each role I’ve been in (6, to be exact – 7 if you count an unpaid internship), I admit that I have a confession to make.

My confession is that my idea about success, the way things are supposed to be, and the way that I and other people should define “success” was all wrong.

Not only was all of that wrong, I admit that I was also wrong in the ways that I actually judged other people for trying to succeed in any other way that wasn’t my way; the way that many of us are told is the only way – the way that says you must go to college, you must work a 9-5 and climb the corporate ladder because that’s the only sensible way to make a living, right?

Any other way that maybe involved things like art, music, writing, philosophy, sports or other creative outlets were essentially discouraged in the public school system and treated, at best, as hobbies that were not an option for our future.

I judged people for actually pursuing their passion because, deep down, I was JEALOUS! Jealous that they didn’t have to fight with traffic, jealous that they actually got to do things like spend time outside and, ultimately, jealous that they had found a way to turn what they love into a living.

I was, above all, insecure about my own position in life that I projected it on to other undeserving people – the only result being a false reassurance that I was right, and they were wrong. In reality, I did not feel reassured – I felt panicked as I battled, for the first time, with the possibility that maybe my path to success isn’t so clear.

Maybe I’m just like everyone else who might not have all the answers right now – that maybe I’m not destined to move forward in a perfectly straight line.

Maybe no one is meant to.

Tangent: A few years ago I discovered one of my new favorite movies, The Greatest Showman, which I’ve since watched I don’t know how many times since I’m such a sucker for inspiring movies that just make you feel good! Based on the true story of P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Showman is a musical with award-winning music that regales Barnum’s struggle for success and, finally, his rise to fame.

Amid all of the dancing, the beautiful soundtrack (which I still listen to almost every day – it’s that good) and stories of love and hardship, I was struck by their song, “Tightrope” from the opening verse:

“Some people long for a life that is simple and planned, tied with a ribbon / Some people won’t sail the seas, ‘cause they’re safer on land, to follow what’s written”

While this song – performed by the incredibly talented Michelle Williams who plays the role of Barnum’s wife, Charity – is about their often tumultuous lifestyle and her struggle in being married to a travelling showman, it speaks to her resolution that she would rather walk the “tightrope” of life by supporting Barnum in doing what he loves than live a life that is safe and predictable. That, although it’s hard to be away from him and care for their children alone for much of the time while he’s off running a circus, “it’s all an adventure that comes with a breathtaking view, walking the tightrope with you”.

This song, like any good music does, totally spoke to my own realization I was coming to about my life that I don’t want to play it safe either!

As someone who has always played it safe since I was a kid – who always followed the rules, acted as the “smart friend” who steered other friends away from trouble, and strived to be successful above all else – I had finally realized that my path to success and my path to happiness were not one in the same.

Sure, they sometimes crossed or ran alongside each other – but most of the time, I veered off to either one or the other as I often thought the two couldn’t co-exist or meld into one, however winding and imperfect it might be.

But now, I’m realizing that all of those people I judged who proved me wrong – who opened their own art exhibit, launched their photography business, qualified for Olympic trials, started their own coffee shop or wedding planning business or coaching practice – also taught me that happiness and success can and should exist!

They taught me, and continue to teach me, that not only do opportunities and paths to success look so uniquely different for everyone; they are also limitless and that even if one path might lead to a dead end, there is always another path waiting to be followed – or, better yet, a random freaking patch of dirt waiting for a new path to be carved into it!

How do you define success in your life?

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