I was one of those kids who seemingly sprang from the womb with the desire to achieve goals and make people proud. When my fifth grade teacher challenged us to read ten books over the summer, I read twenty. I was student body president of my middle school, and captain of my dance team. But unlike Tracy Flick, I wasn’t so much after world domination as I was the praise from others: the glow I felt from being validated as smart, pretty, hard-working, or whatever stamp of approval du jour that said: you are special.
Flash forward twenty years plus, and I’ve learned a lot about the importance of breaking that addictive cycle of finding my self worth in others’ opinions. I now know that it’s a losing battle because at the end of the day, another person’s praise never satisfies that longing that each of us has to feel special. I know that everyone, even those who seem most confident, have their insecurities. I know all of these things, but still. In today’s social media-fueled world, it can feel almost impossible to maintain a strong sense of self when faced with images of lives that appear so perfect on a daily basis: the bodies, the families, their glowing skin and chic outfits, the designed homes of near-mythic levels showing up in our feeds daily. Especially for those of us who (like me) skew towards comparison.
A few months back, I watched the docu-series Shangri-La about music producer Rick Rubin and the artists he develops and mentors at his legendary recording studio high up in the mountains of Malibu. I was struck by the fact that so many of these artists (and we’re talking the most A-list performers at the top of their game) could become almost paralyzed by the pressure to create the next #1 album — and the risk of failing in the process. At one point when discussing what it means to be truly creative, he said something that stopped me in my tracks:
“I have to define the metric of success.”
Meaning, if we’re going to create great work and live lives that are fulfilling, we (each of us) has to decide what “success” means to us as individuals. Are we chasing after a paycheck, a job title, Instagram likes, or some other “metric” that may feel validating but isn’t necessarily in line with our values? In order to answer that question, we have to know, of course, what our personal values and priorities are.
The other day, I realized I was feeling anxious over whether I should be doing more on social media, whether my company is growing as fast as my 5-year plan says it should, and other extrinsic measures of achievement. I sat down in my chair for my morning quiet time, breathed deeply, and reminded myself: I determine the measure of my success. Because life is too short to spend it striving after a goal that someone else has set for you. For me, real success is being creative and trying new things daily, inspiring others and spreading joy. It’s bringing more purpose into the lives of our audience. And most of all, it’s being present with the people in my own life who I love most.
When we put ourselves back in the driver’s seat of our own success and realize that no one else can define it for us, we’re free to stop striving for others’ approval. We can try and fail without worrying so much about what others think. It’s taking the long view of our own happiness, and the game is changed because we can let go of trying to control everything – and take risks.
To me, living that kind of adventurous, messy, curious, joy-filled life sounds a lot more interesting than crafting the “perfect” one.