Chasing (the Image of) Success

When it all boils down to it, the stress that many of my peers feel when it comes to careers, finances, and success as a whole is largely in part because of what we view success to actually “mean”.

For a lot of us–more than a lot of us would let on–it’s about our public image. It’s about how others perceive us.

Success is “Better” When You’re Young

These days we have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t mean much to be successful than it does to be young and successful.

I’m seeing more and more of my peers getting into the mode of wanting to have something of their own. I’m very proud to see so many people starting their own businesses, freelancing, and the like.

There seems to be an obsession with doing things while “under 30”. Forbes and TIME magazine even have an annual issue dedicated to the most successful people who haven’t hit their 30th birthday yet.

Early success is phenomenal, but we also play a dangerous game when we only put “young” successful people in the forefront. Youth has always been fetishized in our culture (i.e. plastic surgery, anti-aging skin care market, hair dye specifically to cover greys, etc) but in more recent years ‘Success’ has been added to the list of things that are better done young. Again, I feel that early entrepreneurship is amazing, especially in this age when people cannot rely on a full-time job anymore and expect to stay at the same company for 20+ years.

In reality, young (financial) successes are still rare in nature. It is very much the norm not to be in the top of your career or even at an ‘amazing’ income level by the time you’re 30. Hustle culture essentially pushes the idea that if it takes you longer than age 35 to hit financial success, you really haven’t done anything “impressive”. For the average 20-something, expecting to start a business and have it blast off within the first year is just as unrealistic as expecting your life to pan out like a Rom-Com (which tend to have young adults as their protagonists). Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Hardly.

The end result is people between the ages of 22 and 29 wondering why they aren’t living up to this (extremely uncommon) standard. That’s when we start seeing people entering entrepreneurship or even applying to jobs that they don’t even want because they think that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. For them, it’s not about chasing success, but chasing an image. Being able to post motivational quotes on Instagram, create extensive captions on their photos, and everything that comes with being an influencer (aside from actual influence).

Success is Extremely Subjective

Something that we don’t think about enough is that not everyone has the same outlook on what success actually is. What success looks like to me may not be the same as what it looks like for the next person.

It’s for that reason that I don’t attempt to push my idea of success on to other people. I feel that buying into an image of success in which we don’t identify will just ultimately lead to us not walking in our purpose.

Take business ownership for example. Business ownership is great, but it’s a lot of hard work. It’s definitely an endeavor to pursue if you are really in firm belief of your abilities, your purpose, and your vision. But I would definitely skip out if you’re only doing it because some guy on Twitter told you it’s your responsibility to have an LLC.

The same goes for a job. This can be tricky because of how difficult job searching can truly be. Both external pressure and economic stress tends to push people to take on jobs in which they have no interest. But taking a job solely for the pay and not taking other things into account (work environment, management styles, etc.) is a quick way to spiral into depression, self-loathing, and all-around misery. We shouldn’t be taking on roles and positions just for the sake of being (or seeming) impressive to others.

Success can definitely be defined as obtaining a high paying job and getting a corner office, and it can also be owning a thriving business. But success can also be achieving stability, or making enough money to send to your parents, or just being able to live a life in which you don’t dread getting out of bed every morning.

I Had to Learn to What My Success Looks Like

I’ve been in the post-college working world for a good amount of time now (since 2014). The roles I’ve had so far have mainly been assistant/associate level, in every industry I’ve worked in. Personally, I don’t currently really have a problem with this.

From a very early age, I already knew that I wanted to write for a living. For that reason, I can’t say I had been adamant about “climbing the corporate ladder” or obtaining some sort of prestigious title at my workplace. For one, I had already come to the realization that no matter what job I had, it would never actually be “my” job. It’s the company’s job and they are lending it to me until they see it fit. I’ve been laid off twice, worked a string of temp jobs until I could find something full-time, went through a severe pay cut, and have had to quit a job I liked because I literally could not survive on the pay. I’ve also witnessed mass layoffs that included people who worked at the company since its founding as well as people who had only been there for a year.

With that being said, I never wanted to be in a position in which 1) A job made up my identity and 2) I relied solely on that job for all of my income. So the idea of having an “important” job title has never appealed to me. If I have to work for someone else, I would rather be doing something that called on my strengths, something that I can do very well. I also like the idea of “predictability” in the sense that I know what time I’m going into work, I know what time I’m going to leave work, and I don’t have the burden of being ‘constantly on the clock’ even when I’m not supposed to be. Outside of a specified project or emergency, people aren’t expecting me to answer emails/calls on the weekend (and they shouldn’t). Having this level of predictability not only gives me peace of mind, but it also allows me to invest more time in developing other income streams and projects (like writing).

Even so, there are times when I’ve told people what I do, and they give the impression that I should somehow be embarrassed about it. I get it, there are plenty of people who don’t want to be in the type of administration positions I’ve had because they don’t like that position of the “corporate pecking order”. However, I just never appreciated how they would automatically project those feelings on to me. My self image isn’t defined by what I do to make a living, nor is it defined by my job title, nor is it defined by whether or not I can sound impressive to others. My day job may not be Instagrammable but it does what I need it to do.

This is the case for me now, but it wasn’t always that way. There were times in my career that I felt like a complete failure because I wasn’t living the life my peers were living (or at the very least, the way they portrayed they were living). Truthfully, a lot of us care about what others think of us more than we like to let on. It took a few years for me to get to this point, but I’m glad I did. The reality is that most people aren’t thinking about us, let alone judging us for where we are in life. They’re too busy with their own troubles and worries.

Your Goals and Your Success are Your Own

I’ve said this on a previous post, but I think the most important thing to remember as we open into this new year is that our goals should be our goals.

It’s not a good idea to set your goals based on someone else’s. Your best friend is opening her own business, it doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. Another friend is about to start working towards his doctorate degree, it doesn’t mean you need to do the same.

Just like in a race, if you’re too concerned with what’s going on beside, in front, and behind you, you won’t have the proper focus needed to accomplish what you should.

If you’re not trying to set goals or resolutions for 2021, I don’t blame you. After a year like 2020 a lot of us are just trying to catch our breath. However, if you are setting goals for yourself, take some time to really think them over. Will the goals you’re setting bring you closer to what you want? Or will they bring you closer to what someone else wants for you? Are these goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely (SMART)? And lastly, be real as to why you’re setting these goals or chasing after a certain accomplishment.

Here’s to the new year and I pray that you are truly in full understanding of what you want.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Awkward Penguin,

  • Raven

Featured Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

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