Definition of Success

I just read Dark Matter. It has me thinking a lot, about professional success versus a happy family life. If you could only have one, which would you choose?

I think a lot more about success than I ever expected I would. I was never a very ambition person. I didn’t earn many awards when I was young, at least not for things that mattered. (Also, I can’t take credit for seven straight years of perfect attendance awards–that was all my mom.) I never thought I was very good at anything in particular, and I never had grand plans to be great in a certain field.

I didn’t even know what I wanted to be. I think my final answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” was a marine biologist, but even when I was saying that I knew I wouldn’t be one.

What I wanted to be was a mom. A happy family life was all I strove for.

Now I wonder why I didn’t think to have more professional ambition.

Obviously the best case scenario is to feel successful both professional and at home. I think it’s hard to manage that balance though, at least simultaneously (at least when your kids are younger). And I do tell myself that life is long (hopefully) and maybe I can find some semblance of success when my kids are older. But the truth is I don’t expect that to be the case. Not everyone can be successful–if they could success wouldn’t be something one can recognize. Success makes you stand out from those around you. Success is achieving something others have not.

All that’s to say, I better be pretty fucking happy with my family life. And a lot of the time I am. But I don’t have the kind of marriage people write books about, the kind of relationship that sustains me. It’s a decent enough marriage, and some of the time I’m satisfied with it, but it’s nothing special.

{Is that a horrible thing to say?}

And parenthood is… well it’s probably something I take for granted. The good of it, anyway. I’m trying so hard this holiday season to see the good for what it is, because there is a so, so much good. But it’s maybe not enough to hang my entire life on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need to feel successful, to craft my own definition of personal success. What would 2017 have to look like for me to feel like I achieved something, made some definitive progress? Perhaps saving a certain percentage of our income? Buying tickets to a Spanish speaking country for the summer of 2018? Getting a new job? At least applying for one?

I think one of the problems with teaching is you don’t really have much to show for it. You don’t create or produce anything. Sometimes it can feel like you job is just to be there, in a room, the adult presence responsible for 32 kids for certain hours of the day. I know teaching can be so much more, but it’s hard to know that it actually is, especially when you have the kind of kids (ahem, middle schoolers) who are so self-absorbed that they rarely turn their attention away from themselves long enough to really acknowledge that you’re a human being, let alone one who is making an impact in some small way.

And honestly, I don’t feel like I’m the kind of teacher that makes a difference. I don’t have what it takes to be that teacher. I don’t know how to provide the empathetic consistency needed to be the kind of teacher that students remember. I can’t recall the names or faces of most of the people who taught me over the years. I think I’m probably that teacher to my students as well.

I think, if I were actually a really good teacher, I might feel a lot more fulfillment in my job. Instead I feel like a failure most of the time. My classroom management is miserable and without that, you can’t really accomplish much of anything. There are some things I do well as a teacher, to be sure, but without that foundation, you really can’t build much.

And yes, I’m working on it. I just bought yet another book on the subject. But I’ve read countless books and I know what I need to do, I just can’t seem to actually do it, at least not consistently enough. Eventually it all devolves into chaos, and I walk away from my class feeling defective and devalued.

If I haven’t figured out how to manage my classroom in 13 years, can I really expect to figure it out now?

If I don’t expect to achieve some kind of measurable success in my life, I better find a definition that I can work for, and maybe some day achieve. I really hope that one day I know what success looks like for me, both professionally and personally, so that I have a fighting chance of achieving it.


  1. Can I just say that your words resonate with me more than any other blog I follow. Just wanted to throw that out there, for what it’s worth. Wishing you a Happy (and fulfilling) 2017!

  2. I used to dream about success. I wanted to be a successful veterinarian with an amazing riding career to include the Olympics, preferably a gold medal in eventing as an individual and as a member of the US team. I still dream about this goal. It is still achievable. I never wanted kids, until one day I did, right after I got married. Now I have three beautiful children whom I love and adore. My success in my career is maintaining in that I am not able to give it up to stay home with my children but I am only working to support them and us. I love being a mom. I love every single minute. I get comments from friends, family and strangers on how patient, loving and kind I am to my children. I am not a patient, loving or sympathetic person unless I am with my children. I think you need to find something that drives you. Something you would give anything for, right now for me that is my family, previously it was my career, in the future it may be my horses. I can say without hesitation that I would chose a happy family life over anything else. I have that and I do not take one second for granted.

    1. I’m glad you are so happy in this stage of your life and still feel like your dreams of professional success might still be attainable. That sounds like a lovely place to be.

    2. I agree that I would choose a successful family life over career many times over. And I think I have a rather successful family life, one that is stable and fun and very loving (all parties involved, not just showing love to the kids). I love my kids, I love my husband, I love my family…. But even while loving those things, I don’t love EVERYTHING that comes with them. I don’t love my lack of alone time and I certainly don’t love cleaning up kid vomit and breaking up fights between my kids. šŸ˜‚ I could live without those minutes in my day for sure!

  3. I think the definition is different for everyone but also at different times of life you see it differently…. it moves and changes shape, is never static. Achieving one goal just means another one appears. So appreciate the tiny wins in life and celebrate yourself.

    1. I think you are right, that I should focus on the small wins and consider those successes. Right now I am just so entirely without direction that I have a hard time doing that. I need to figure out what I’m trying to accomplish next year. That will help.

  4. I see in you a person who will always be striving to better yourself in some way, not because you are deficient, but because you DO have an internal drive for success. I could never picture you standing before the cameras and say “I am a tremendously successful teacher!” (Yes, I’m totally picturing Trump right now) without the asterisk *but I could really improve my classroom management. I think it’s a laudable personality trait to have, even if it does leave an aftertaste of dissatisfaction in all you do šŸ™‚

    1. I could not agree more! Noemi, you’ll never feel successful because you’re always striving for better, and that is a really good thing. Brian is like you in this way, and I love that about him.

  5. As you know, you and I are very similar in our childhoods and adolescence in that I never had goals, never pushed myself hard, n never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I fell into my career because the one thing I excel at that others noticed are my organization skills. Total chance thing. And I was good at it, but always could have done better. šŸ˜‰

    I think that your students will remember you. Your efforts that went into the “day of the dead” were far greater than I think anyone else would have shown. Kids remember those things and people.

  6. I kinda had the opposite–knew early on what I wanted to do/then changed midstream when I realized I really wanted to do a different thing. Both times I was goal driven pushed myself etc. I assumed I’d have kids some day but I wasn’t focused on that in my very early 20s. The irony is of course that when I decided to finally have them, IF struck and it almost didn’t happen.

    I think it’s ok to want to succeed with/in both. TBH I take a little offense when people state that their family comes first etc.–well, of course, but that doesn’t mean you’re working only to pay the bills. Your family can come first but you can also want to succeed, make a difference outside your family, etc.

    Btw even if you don’t feel like it, your profession does make a difference. That alone should be comforting–unless you were a terrible teacher which of course you’re not. For me, even when things have felt like they sucked or I wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted, I could tell myself at least I’m not working for Philip Morris etc. The sub fields of my careers I’ve worked in were/are white hat.

  7. I think one of the interesting things in that book is that he has his own personal definitions for success and each version of himself tweaks that definition. Like the friend (sorry, I’m blanking on his name) that made the potion — he’s super successful in one scenario, super successful but behind the scenes in another, and nothing in another. And we see him relate to all these different versions of his life and judge whether they are better or simply different from the one he’s striving to reach.

    One thing I will say as a teacher is that I think good classroom management is about being yourself and not trying to follow someone else’s system. If you are following someone else’s ideas, you can forget them and those moments of inconsistency are the cracks that some kids use for disruption. I think that goes for parenting, too. I think when you are yourself, following your own path, you remember what is important to you and impart that to the kids consistently. Does that make any sense?

  8. I had a lot more ambition as a child. I seriously thought I was going to be Secretary of State or a famous historian. My high school was really competitive and it became obvious early on that I wasn’t a superstar there and I think it sapped a lot of confidence from me. Isnt that terrible? The point of the high school is to breed leaders and innovators and the elite in general and I probably became less ambitious as a result. I still went to elite undergraduate and graduate schools, but since I was never in the very top of my class, I didn’t get the best jobs, etc. Ok, now that I’m writing this I am realizing that I probably set unrealistic expectations and my definition for academic and professional success kept on narrowing as I started to achieve goals. Still, I thought I’d have a more prominent job than I do now. I read a lot of columns and listen to podcasts by pundits so much younger than I am and I get sad that my job just seems so minor in comparison. But, at the same time, even before I became a mom, I never really “leaned in.” I think I valued my free time too much and also, I didn’t want to take on something huge and fail. So I just did what I had to do, and did it well. But, now I’m not a superstar.

  9. You are a success at writing a blog – your blog is the most interesting blog that I read and I enjoy every post (and all the comments) I hope to continue to follow along throughout the next year. I wish you much success for 2017 whatever success means to you!

  10. I just stumbled here from a friend’s link and browsed thru your posts. I love your honesty. Especially when you talked about marriage being hard, and yr reflection on your life. Your words resonate with me. Thank you for being human in yr posts.

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