Redefining Success On Your Terms

A dear friend who graduated just ahead of me in law school officially becomes a judge today. A judicial investiture is a tremendous honor and a clear marker of success in the legal profession. It will be a beautiful celebration of all that it took for her to get here.

To experience this moment, however vicariously, has caused me to reflect on what success means to me, personally. I hadn’t consciously defined it before, but I now recognize the desire for it as the undercurrent of tension beneath all my efforts. That not good enough feeling that seemed never to go away no matter what the achievement. It has taken half a lifetime to recognize what our culture has taught me to want and to redefine it for myself.


I decided to take a stab at writing the list to which I have tried to measure up all this time. It turned out to be a great exercise, so I will share it with you. Until I did it, I hadn’t understood why I felt so inadequate despite all the boxes I have dutifully checked in my life. This list is not unlike Whack-a-Mole where no matter how hard you try, there is no way to really win.


So. Here’s my list. As a woman in this culture, I have felt responsible to manage and maintain the following:*

  1. a fit body and ever-youthful face
  2. a lucrative career with significant responsibility and a high salary
  3. a perfect marriage to a man who focuses solely on his career due to his wife shouldering all home and family responsibility**
  4. polite, happy, accomplished children
  5. flawless parenting choices based on expert opinions
  6. wholesome, homemade meals everyone in the family loves
  7. all the kids transportation, homework supervision, and the expertise to handle any issue
  8. a tasteful, tidy home
  9. constant communication with all the children’s handlers: doctors, teachers, coaches, therapists, friends and their parents
  10. to exude and express contentment, like these expectations are completely fine with me


Gross, right? I didn’t grow up in a Stepfordy home, so there’s only one explanation as to where this conditioning came from: EVERYWHERE. The culture all around us convinced me that I had to live up to this craziness. And when I didn’t, I got the sense I was supposed to either make excuses for the failures or fake perfection.

I often share the real stuff both in my writing and in my life, but I always feel out of line doing it. Ever notice how most of us aren’t at all honest about what is really going on? Even with supposedly close friends? Because we are off the list and we feel bad about it.

I am here to tell you, it’s okay to go rogue. You are human. There is not one other person on this planet like you, and that is a GOOD thing. All the cultural messages say we are supposed to be exactly the same. It’s not true. You are meant to be just as you are. And here’s the best part: being yourself is the only way to achieve real happiness. 

After all this time, I realize I am responsible to create the life I want based on my true nature, not what society says I am supposed to want. So I made my own list. It is in no way a perfectionist fantasyland that could never have brought me contentment anyway. I am so much closer to accepting myself than I ever have been.

This is my answer to the above top ten:

  1. Moving my body in nature is one of my true joys in life. Throw in a great conversation and I have the trifecta of awesomeness. I know the parts I feel bad about is just someone trying to sell me stuff. 
  2. I have found work that feeds my soul and could not be more excited about it. My best earning years lie ahead.
  3. My marriage is ever-evolving. We are both committed to growth and connection and that is everything.
  4. My kids are on their own chosen paths and I am here to support them in being who they are. When I am the space for them to feel their own feelings, it all works better.
  5. As parents, we do the best we can with what we know at the time. The more I accept myself, the more open and loving I am to everyone, including my kids.
  6. Mark and I split meal prep and shopping and also do takeout. It feels much better than serving the family like the old days. I like what we are modeling for our kids.
  7. I love carpool! It makes me feel like I have a circle of co-parents which is a comfort. I am terrible at homework supervision. We have an amazing tutor named Judy who is a modern day saint/Mary Poppins. If anyone needs a miracle worker, she is IT. (Call me.)
  8. My home is lovely. And often quite messy. Spring cleaning would be a really good idea.
  9. I communicate with all the kids “people” and Mark has really made efforts to show up in this space too. It sends a message to the kids that we are both interested and available.
  10. I do try to practice gratitude for all I have while reserving the right to complain LOUDLY when I want things to be different, and that is just who I am.

Someone way smarter than I once said, “give up defining yourself—to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life.” We are fluid, ever-changing growing beings. We don’t need to fit in a box or check a box. No boxes.

When you realize only YOU get to say who you are, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.



WRITING PROMPT: How do you define success? Or do you even bother? How are you at self-acceptance?

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*I speak to the cultural expectations for straight, white women because that is my personal experience. In our culture, BIPOC and non-binary folks have great difficulty even being recognized, let alone feeling safe individuating too far off the mainstream. Those in my position have a responsibility to join with them and hold the door open for all of us.

**Apologies to my LGBTQIA+ readers for this heteronormative perspective. I suspect same sex relationships have a similar set of expectations where power skews to the higher earning partner. My guess is that if both are equal earners, you have the opportunity to be real partners because there is division of labor along gender lines. Please fill me in!