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Defining success

This weekend I had a powerful realization. I suspect it came to me because I’ve been following The Minimalists for a while now and they posted a link that, while a bit … esoteric for my taste, had a very interesting point.

It’s no secret that many of us, especially in the academic or academic-adjacent disciplines are in debt. Hell, there are lots of people from all other backgrounds in debt too. If you’ve been reading here for sometime now, you’ll know that I have talked about money issues, stupid decisions I made, and how very, very slowly I’ve been climbing out of debt. I feel as if sometimes my blog has migrated from disgruntled-doc-dom to a personal finance one. Maybe it will. Who knows. But the only advice I’d impart would be how to NOT go into debt and how I’ve been slowly climbing out of it the old-fashioned way (ie, I didn’t marry a trust-fund guy/man, and I didn’t take too many side jobs, it’s been all my tightening a bit my spending and sheer patience and consistence).

But anyway, 8 years ago when I finally admitted that I had a problem, I started paying close attention to my spending. Propelled by that, and by my lack of excitement about my postdoc, I jumped ship, became a staff scientist and haven’t looked back since. Now that I see it written there, 8 years since I first started plotting my exit from the tenure-track (hot damn!), it seems almost incredible. I’ve been at this debt-repayment business for nearly a decade. Part of it has been because just as I was ready to tackle my mountain of debt, I found out a loan I’d co-signed for a family member, wasn’t being pair, despite promises made, so I had to come to the rescue and pay that debt or face bankruptcy. I remember going to a financial planner’s office in NYC with my now husband and just seeing all the numbers laid in front of me. I was in a disaster zone.

Now, 6 years after, I look back and I still can’t believe it. I’m not close to being done, but I am closer that I’ve ever been. And I’m trying to make smart decisions and work hard to bring my credit up (back in 2011 I got a letter from my back saying the were worried that my credit score was like 572 or something). These days it’s near the 700s, but my goal is to bring it higher. Of course that takes time. Oh well.

Aaaanyway. So back to success. Upon reading the link from TM, something really clicked in my head. I’ve been paying off my debt, been changing (some, but not all) of my consuming habits, especially surrounding money and gifts. And reading those sentences about how we should examine what we call success, it tied all of my efforts and experiences together.

I realized that for a while now, I’ve been asking my husband to give me the gift of time spent together trying something new. He gave me a snorkeling kit and I can’t wait to use it. I’ve been trying to invest my time and effort into giving him experiences, from visiting sports halls of fame, to driving to new places, to trying new foods.

My mind went back to how I saw my parents and family define success. To how people around me viewed and evaluated and assigned success. I’m probably not the only person who’s family/friends/acquaintances have defined success to: owning a house, belonging and staying in a certain tax bracket, purchasing a new doohickey or doodad, traveling first class around the world, or staying at 4 and 5 star hotels, fine dining, fashion, etc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those beliefs. It is fantastic to move into a new tax bracket and be able to afford traveling, or high fashion, or a new car every X amount of years, or the new iPhone. The issue becomes when those items become the sole source of our happiness. I think we all have a bit of materialism in us, and in a way it’s sorta healthy. A picture frame, an heirloom, jewelry, a set of postcards written by our grandparents … they all provide a connection with someone/something we cherish. But over-consumption seems to have taken over our lives. I know in my case it is still a struggle.

So, upon reading this list of items that help define, or redefine our happiness, I see this section that talks about how it’s a good idea to redefine what success means to us. It can certainly be something material, but I believe the true measure of success is when we can look around us and feel content. Not admiring a piece of jewelry, a fancy gadget, but instead our accomplishments, whether from academy or a hobby, or a side job. Happiness measured in the times we see and share special moments with our loved ones, be they’re related by blood or choice.

That helped me look around and take inventory of my current situation: I may not live in the most glamorous place in the world, but I have a roof over my head, two cats whom I adore, my car is paid off (even though it’s 14 years old and still has a tape reader). I’m in love with my partner and we travel and stay at modest places. Our tastes are similar. I wouldn’t call our taste fancy, elegant, or high society, but it suits our needs and makes us happy. Together, we make a decent living. We don’t have to go into debt to finance our lifestyle. If we can take a break, we do. If we can’t, we hope (and sometimes know) that our time will come.

I don’t own fancy sunglasses, or have a collection of elegant silverware. My husband doesn’t own a sportscar, thankfully he doesn’t have any vices except follow a couple of sports and engage in conversation with other fans.

Success to me, today, after experiencing need and crushing debt, means seeing and helping my family. It means spending time with them, even if it’s just watching a telenovela and commenting on how old this guy or that actress looks. I don’t publish much these days, but I live science through my trainees and their discoveries. I feel content in assisting them with either my hands or my brain, so they can become even more amazing than they already are. I don’t wear too many flashy brands and don’t care about mani/pedis every week (I do have 1 or 2/year), or the latest music.

I’m still a consumer. I’ll always be. But in making more intentional, and deliberate choices, I try to think about the bigger picture: do I need X or Y gadget for real? Or is it just for show? In trying to define a new normal for me, I’m finding success and fulfillment in who I am. I’m making peace with my errors and looking forward to a life better lived.

How do you define success?