This weekend I was at my cousin’s graduation, and as per usual I found myself comparing myself to the graduates. In most graduation ceremonies, the accomplishments of the graduating class are highlighted, to show how much they’ve done and accomplished in their time at college. It usually involves things like talking about GPAs, publishing, traveling and studying abroad, research, etc. Many of them are very quantifiable: accomplishment unlocked, my paper has been published. Accomplishment unlocked, I graduated summa cum laude. And on and on.
And so if you’ve achieved all of these things you’re supposed to be “successful”. So what do we mean by successful? Generally we mean someone who has graduated with good grades, who has accomplished something outstanding like publication or research, who has a well-paying job, perhaps someone with a house and a car, someone who has lots of friends and a significant other. Mostly we mean material success and the academic success that leads to material success. These things are all linked far too closely to separate: most people only get good grades in school because they want to graduate and get a good job. People don’t view learning in and of itself as success- they view grades and the diploma as success. There are quantifiable measures that allow us to compete against each other and see who has the most.
I must admit that I am hugely guilty of doing this myself. As I mentioned before, I found myself comparing to the graduates: did I have higher grades than they did, did I have more distinctions than they did, had I published, had I gone abroad. The points where I found myself lacking, I berated myself. It’s unfortunate, because we generally don’t see success as a holistic question: we don’t ask whether someone is at a point in their life in which they are generally happy or generally well taken care of. We make a list of points to compare. Whoever gets the most points wins the success game.
Why on earth do we do this? I have to say that I don’t entirely get it. Yes, people do often have natural competitive drives, and these things fuel those drives, and yes, it’s easier to use quantifiable numbers rather than qualitative descriptions (and when we do studies we HAVE to use quantifiable numbers). Yes this is the only practical way to do grades and create salaries and so on. But in our personal lives we could afford to be a bit more nuanced in our thinking.
To take an example: my cousin graduated from college this weekend. She graduated with decent grades, good friend, and a good boyfriend. She doesn’t have a job yet, but she has a supportive family and a good degree. She knows fairly well what she wants to do. In contrast, I graduated from college in three years with two majors and high honors. I had a job coming out of college and moved out of my parents’ home two months later. However I graduated with a shit boyfriend who treated me nearly abusively, almost no friends, still in the process of battling a serious eating disorder, and generally depressed and anxious. Which one of us is more successful?
It’s impossible to tell. You can’t compare these things, all you can do is look at the individual life and see its strengths and weaknesses. If and when I feel I’m recovered, I will feel a tremendous amount of success, but that’s not something I can ever write on a resume or that I will ever get credit for in my work or professional life. None of us understand the intricacies of another person’s situation in life, and none of us understand the barriers that might have existed for them. If someone goes into college trying to provide for and raise a child, it might be success for them to graduate at all, much less get some kind of honors or publish a paper. Success is contextual, just as failure is.
I would like to define success as overcoming obstacles. If that were the case, then my college degree would be a minor success in comparison to starting to open up to my family, finding a boyfriend who cares for me, standing up for myself, or openly blogging about my thoughts and feelings every day. This definition gives us the flexibility to see the obstacles that an individual must overcome and to congratulate them on whatever they accomplish against those obstacles.
It will be a success for me when I can accept that definition of success.