Are you crawling along the gound like the caterpillar? Feeling stuck in the confines of your old cocoon? I’ve always been a tad nonconformist, but I’m noticing lately how one of my long treasured beliefs is now coming of age.
Success can, and in some cases must, be defined by individual preference rather than outward norms or previously accepted benchmarks. The world is ever evolving and we’re being forced to adapt. In the process, we have opportunity to redefine what it means to be our own success in life.
We may have defined success in the past, but what happens when the past has gone away?
I’m old enough to recall when marriage and childrearing were the American female ideal. Divorce or an out-of-wedlock child meant moral and religious failure and the parties in question became social outcasts. Women who didn’t marry by age 23 were labeled old maids, even if they chose a different path or opted for a career instead.
Life spans were shorter, too. If 23 created old maids, 30 marked full maturity and 40 qualified for Geritol, a popular tonic marketed to those approaching their sunset years. Grandparenthood started early and the time between retirement and death was brief.
Men were the primary – and often sole – economic providers. They worked in easily identifiable occupations like plumber, accountant, lawyer, factory worker and doctor. Job hopping was frowned upon, a sign of instability or insubordination. Most worked at the same place until they retired, usually at 62, often with pension in hand.
In this former era, everyone fit into an order that Americans could understand and rely on. Far from perfect, it provided comfort in its predictability. It also enabled people to define their identity and relative success in the world.
Many prospered under the old order, enjoying a good run. Others continue to live in that space today. But what about the rest? What does it mean for people today – especially when old paradigms are falling away and new ones are yet to be established?
There’s an in-between time, a dimension when our mind contemplates only what is lost. During that period, we lack vision for new things that have yet to appear. Either fearing or mourning a loss of what was, we lose sight of what potentially might be.
The sense of loss.
These days, I encounter plenty who believe that success along previously defined lines is eluding them. These include recent graduates, armed with advanced degrees and student loans to match. Hopeful of a previous corporate employment system they believed in, they’re now confronting a job market where opportunities appear slim.
They’re mature workers whose jobs were eliminated due to outsourcing, downsizing and obsolescence. Still wanting and/or needing to work, they feel marginalized into shadows of their former positions and pay.
They’re women who left careers to raise children yet recognize their parenting roles have since expired. Unlikely to become grandparents any time soon, they question what to do in the interim.
They’re couples whose thriving careers and ample home equity vaporized in the recession and an over-blown real estate bubble. Losing hold of their former identities, they wonder if they can ever recreate Lifestyles that took decades to build.
Socially and economically, they’re young adults living back home with parents; middle agers whose spouses left them all alone; and older offspring caring for elderly parents. These newer arrangements lack history, rule books and evidentiary models for success.
As the previous social, economic and occupational order continues to fade, so does our former relative sense of success. In this new age of seeming unease, how do we define – and redefine – our notions of economic, social and business success?
As outer definitions fail us and a vacuum is left in our wake, might I suggest we seize this unique moment not to mourn a loss…. but to see opportunity instead. Whether we’ve chosen the moment or find ourselves seeming victim of it, can we use this time to see what we’re made of anew?
We’ve already passed through a period of measuring our success and identity against outward norms and societal conformity. As indicated earlier, the previous order was far from perfect. Is there something to be gained by now reflecting upon who we are from within and creating something unique and brand new?
My intent is neither to approve or disapprove of America’s former measures of success but instead to inspire meaningful, new definitions. As a proponent of authentic living and finding happiness from within, I often wonder if this “in-between” time might provide unexpected opportunity for many unlikely entrepreneurs. After all, when there’s no going back, we can only go forward.
“It’s a good thing we’re so thrifty. We didn’t know we’d live this long.”
– Aunt Helen, age 90
Whether by necessity of age, circumstance or era, we’re challenged to find new ways to define ourselves, our purpose and our joy. Easier for some than others, there remains hope to see ourselves from a refreshed perspective.
A few years ago, I came face-to-face with my own questions about success. I’d enjoyed a previous corporate career in management and, later, time as a home schooling mom. But I was anxious to explore new horizons. Our daughter was growing quickly, becoming independent with equal speed. Was my past all I had? Something within me yearned to grow. I wanted to move forward into a purposeful career that would dovetail with my personality and interests.
In a move my husband claims was either brilliant or completely insane, the two of us took a leap of faith. Together since college and sharing a desire for meaningful adventure, the two of us wanted to create a different future as empty nester adults. Attempting to combine a travel-friendly lifestyle and a desire to positively impact culture, we launched an entertainment company.
Taking the road less traveled, we sold our house in advance of the real estate bust and moved to a modest townhome. Next, we closed our profitable computer firm and said good-bye to the security that accompanied it.
Playing entrepreneur was a major stretch. We were taking ideas (and ideals) and turning them into reality. Leaving our familiar world, we entered unknown spheres. We would encounter new industries, new faces and new digital spaces. Virtual nobodies among young experts and seasoned pros alike, we constantly had to step up our game to get noticed – or even taken seriously.
Part of our entrepreneurial journey involved bringing a preschool teacher’s creative nursery rhymed character to market. Financing the entire project from scratch, we oversaw the work of an Emmy-award winning animator, various musical artists, voice-over talents, and an import company for the design and manufacture of a new plush toy.
We joined preschool parenting organizations, attended industry events throughout the country and abroad, found the author numerous TV, radio and press interviews, and worked with public school library systems. The children’s entertainment property was featured on AOLKids and appeared over 20 times on HSN with 5-star reviews and a complete sell-through of our merchandise.
Had my husband and I not experienced the building process ourselves, we would have never grown in the business. We’d later look back and appreciate how the journey helped us develop, redefining ourselves and contributing to our new benchmark for success.
This growth process really hurts!
A few years ago, the highly purposed idealist in me experienced a brief, but very personal, crisis. Away on vacation with time for reflection, I looked back on the past I’d already lived and forward to a future I could hardly imagine. I was caught in that “in-between” period of tremendous personal pain, questioning where I had been and where I was yet to go in both my life and personal career.
“It’s like going through transition in childbirth. The discomfort is overwhelming but the joy of outcome is ultimately worth the pain.” – a knowing friend
While it would take additional time, professional stretching and a near total mental transformation, I can happily report some light from the other side. The previous caterpillar who roamed the ground and spent what felt like far to long in a dark and heavy cocoon is continually breaking out into a new world of creative possibility.
Today, I continue to redefine and build upon my idea of success. The often rocky journey was necessary for my outcome. My husband and I took on additional outside projects as we built our our entertainment business. Eventually, we’d create on our own projects and enjoy enormous personal fulfillment from them.
Each new business endeavor has caused me to grow. I’ve flexed new muscles, worked my talents and overcome more than a few embedded fears.
Surprisingly, my personal business transition provided content for over 200 Maura4u videos, countless blogs and booklets encouraging others to redefine their idea of success, too.
I was always a tad nonconformist. My unwillingness to return to a previous corporate career and my lack of interest in making our computer rep firm my future did not provide with a dead end. Rather, a willingness to let the old pass that I might forge forward into the unknown ultimately delivered me a lively, fulfilling and happy future.
I may not fit any established norm, but I’ve made myself happy redefinng my success in this ever-evolving world. Whatever your definition of success might be, may you find yourself lively, purposeful and happy, too!
Maura Sweeney is an Author, Blogger and Public Speaker
She inspires happiness – from the inside out.
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