Stephanie’s sweet smell of success


It is a word that gets bandied about a lot but is hard to define.

It is said you are “successful” for “accomplishing an aim or purpose.” But there is also that definition of a “successful” person “having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction.”

There lies the rub. Success is often seen not just as accomplishing your own goals, but in achieving something that other people might be able to measure and weigh.

I think about this a lot raising children. What does it mean for them to succeed? What are their goals for themselves? What are mine for them? What does their “success” look like to society?

When I was writing about advertising, I was leafing through a magazine to check for interesting ads and trends. I came across a copy-heavy Lexus ad. On the page opposite the gorgeous glamour shot of the luxury vehicle, the long block of text began:

Successful people, the kind who drive a Lexus.

I didn’t have to read on. Bravo, I thought. Perfect advertising. They made their brand synonymous with being successful. Recently, I was telling a friend this story as we walked to her car, and it turned out she drives a Lexus. She nodded in agreement with the ad’s assessment: She is a successful person. She is a corporate executive with a great salary, she owns a beautiful home in a lovely upscale suburb, and is married with two kids. With the Lexus in the driveway, it’s confirmed. Success.

Cool. But what of the people who don’t drive a Lexus because you can’t afford it or don’t like it? What other markers are there? What are your markers? What are mine or my children’s?

Ugh. Back to the drawing board. There are plenty of ads out there selling products and services that will make you successful. There are thousands and thousands of self-help books that will give you the secret to success in a myriad of ways. There are retreats and workshops and coaches and classes that will aid you in your journey to success. I partake in those that appeal to me, and often they work. I find the inspiration I need to keep going, to keep on coming up with creative ways to make myself feel “successful.”

I said to my mother once while in a happy mood “The trees are so green today!” And then it occurred to me: on a different day, in a different mood, the trees looked dark and scary. It was my perspective, after all, that colored them vibrant and lush or ominous in their overpowering largesse.

Like beauty, “success” is in the eye of the beholder. I try to impart this to my kids as much as possible. It is important to remember that it is not the Harvard grads or the Lexus owners who have a lock on accomplishment. Not everyone is after the same trophy. It can seem, certainly, that some people are more successful than others and, then, sometimes it turns out those people with that impressive resume or that fancy car in the driveway could not ever see the green of the trees. Their goals were just those created by copywriters or Boards of Trustees trying to sell the public on a single-minded notion of “success.”

But sales pitches only work if we buy in. In our heart of hearts, we know what success feels like if we’ve had it, even for mere moments. I feel successful when my kids smile, or when I throw a party and see people enjoying themselves. I feel successful when I put together a particularly fun array of necklaces that compliment my outfit, or when I hang a painting of my own or a friend’s. I feel successful when I’ve helped someone feel better, through my writing or my workshops. I feel successful when I take a long walk in the snow with my dog, and I smile and chat with other cold-weather wanderers who have braved the elements to let the dogs run freely and happily, and to see the beauty of fresh powdery snow covering the ponds and trees in magical ways.

My vision of success is strange and unique, just like my kids’, just like everyone’s. Sometimes I fall prey to the ideas other people have built up as “success” for their own benefit, but then I have to close my eyes, put my hands to my heart, and just breathe.

I have to remember that everyone’s journey is a different one, and that accomplishments come in all shapes and sizes.

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