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I was asked by the English and Foreign Language department of my alma mater to sit on a panel of alumni to inspire current undergrads with our success stories.
I had been a dual major of English and Spanish, and was working as the executive director of a nonprofit healthcare organization. They wanted us to show these young, disillusioned English and Foreign Language majors that indeed you could become successful with one of these majors.
I had my doubts, but I agreed to join the panel.
There were three of us, a meager display of success, and only a handful of interested students. I imagined that had something similar been offered during my undergrad experience (and probably something was), I would not have attended. I spent my hours outside of class working and/or drinking my afternoons and evenings away, not planning for future success.
Somehow though, I managed to be a successful student. And after years of jobs that wouldn’t have landed me on the panel—bartending, bar managing, and waitressing—I had entered the professional world and then somehow found myself with a respectable, adult-sounding title, which meant I had a demanding and stressful job. But I loved my job, and I became really good at it.
On the panel, I dressed like a professional and gave the answers that were hoped for by the department heads and professors—thoughtful, authentic, motivating. I’m sure I skipped the part about the years of heavy drinking I did after college, the bartending until three in the morning and partying until daylight, the hedonistic travels across the world. Maybe I mentioned traveling, but surely, I framed it appropriately.
I didn’t mention that for many years, I had absolutely no idea what an undergraduate degree in English could do for me, or that I continuously chose unhealthy relationships with men and alcohol over anything that looked like a career. I didn’t mention how I was always writing, filling journal after tattered journal, but too insecure to submit anything for publication.
“How does it feel to be successful?” one student asked as the discussion wrapped up.
Great question. After stepping into the position of executive director, I had spent my first few weeks on the job googling, “how to be an executive director.” My mantra had been, “fake it til you make it.” Being successful felt like I was a fake. It felt like I showed up for work every day and wondered, who in the world decided I should have so much responsibility?
It felt like this one time, when after giving an informative and engaging presentation about migrant health, I turned to my intern and said aloud to her, “Can you believe these people think I’m an adult?” She looked at me a bit funny and laughed, which is when I remembered that she believed I was an adult. That I was more than a decade older than her. That she looked to me for guidance. That she had confidence in me to keep the organization running smoothly. And that I was keeping the organization running.
I never felt like an adult. Or like a success. The first time I led a board meeting in a conference room full of older white men, I felt like a little girl playing grown up. They seemed convinced that I knew what I was talking about. I was faking it. But I was also making it. I did know what I was talking about.
The stress of the position wore me down and made me more serious, inspired anger in me at the injustices of our systems, led me into depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and gave me a deep exhaustion and a few gray hairs. (I plucked them.) While adult-like experiences piled up around me and inside me, I continued wondering who decided I could handle so much responsibility—even as I handled it.
Around this time in my life, I invested in a nice blender, as any normal, successful early-30s person would. Once, while cleaning the removable blade, I sliced my finger open. The blade was sharp, and the slice went deep. It bled a lot, but I survived. Months later, after blending something chocolatey and delicious, I removed the blade and almost licked the chocolate off of it. I paused, remembered the slice to my finger from months earlier, and reluctantly decided not to lick the blades. In that moment, I felt remarkably proud. I thought, “Well, this is how I’ve reached adulthood. This is how I’ve survived this long.”
I felt incredibly smug for having learned a pretty basic lesson. I did something that caused myself pain and avoided that same behavior later. Success. Not cutting myself on a sharp blender blade made me feel more like an adult than easily giving a presentation to a group of healthcare professionals about the health issues of agricultural workers.
Back at the panel, I didn’t answer the question about feeling successful with, “Just fake it ‘til you make it.” Nor did I offer the blender story. But I did answer honestly:
I don’t really believe in success or failure. There is no endpoint at which you become successful or its opposite.
What looks like failure one day can turn into success. And our socially constructed determinants of success cause many people to be internally miserable, anxious and depressed, overworked and overtired.
There is no destination that is success because we are always growing and changing. There is always more to learn. We are always drawing on our past, our mistakes, and our good decisions to teach us more about our present, to lead us into our futures.
Perhaps I’ll always struggle with imposter syndrome. Perhaps I will always feel like I am faking it. I don’t believe I’ll ever make it, and not because I lack confidence, more because I don’t know what it is. Honestly, it sounds pretty boring, and because of who I am as a person, I would probably awkwardly trip over it.
We move along, do the best we can, and some days do the worst, fall, get back up, get broken hearts, hurt people we love, get angry, forgive, heal, make money, lose money, make friends, end friendships, learn new things, and relearn old lessons. Then we learn them again and again and again, until we get dizzy or until they stick. There isn’t any recipe. For me at least, there isn’t a list of six or seven or three things to do or be or practice in order to become successful. There is only my own definition of how I want to live my life.
If I ever get asked to speak on a panel again, I will tell the story of when I knew I was successful: the moment I didn’t slice open my tongue on a sharp blender blade. Success for me isn’t about money, titles, letters after my name, whether or not I’ve acquired a husband, or followed a logical career progression. (I have not, in case there was any doubt.)
I still don’t feel like an adult, but honestly, does anyone? Do any of us ever feel like a certain age or gender or any other externally determined label? Don’t we just feel?
For me, success feels like growth, and growth can be confusing, illogical, and nonlinear. Success is being comfortable in your skin. It is about integrity and feeling content with your decisions, even in those moments you don’t feel comfortable in your skin. Success is aspiring to do your best, accepting when you aren’t at your best, and accepting others where they are on any given day.
And maybe, at the most primal level, success is simply learning to avoid making yourself bleed. Maybe, it’s enough to just continue to be alive in this crazy, beautiful world.