A Childhood Memory:
Growing up, my mom judged people by their professional status, namely how much they earned or their role in the workplace. She would often remark (mostly about men), “He has a very important job.” In her eyes, people who had “very important jobs” had college degrees, titles after their names, and worked in companies that provided substantial 401K plans. Most of my life, I dutifully tried to achieve that “very important job.” G-d forbid, I considered a trade, beauty school, a secretarial position, or ―worse―wanted to stay at home and raise my children. Later in life, I came to realize my mom’s values were not that far from our current American cultural values.
To that end, after high school I went to college. A bachelor’s degree led to a master’s degree that led to a doctoral degree―it felt as if I never stopped going to college. None of this was easy, and it was all at great emotional and financial cost. Unfortunately in my mother’s eyes, none of those degrees landed me that elusive “very important job.” For me, my life began when I met my husband. He has been my champion for more than 30 years, and it has not always been easy. We have two intelligent, beautiful, and talented kids. They are strong young women, who are contributing members of society. I’ve recently been blessed with one terrific son-in-law. Besides being a great husband, his job is to protect our great country. All three have very important jobs!
What Changed Me?
Early in my working career (in a good job but not a “very important job”), the office secretary and I were chatting and discussing our children. At the time, my assumption was that being an administrative assistant was her only career option. After all, she was stuck with having to take any job after being home raising her kids. That could not have been further from the truth. This woman told me that she loved her job and that she had no desire to move any higher in the organization. Her job allowed her to earn money, benefits, assistance with retirement; but most importantly, the job gave her flexibility and freedom to be with her family. The biggest shocker to me was that she considered raising her children as her “very important job!” This amazing women reached one goal and was enjoying the journey towards the next.
That brief conservation shattered my perceptions and led me down the path of many personal epiphanies. It forced me to reexamine my mother’s attitudes, my own beliefs, and the larger cultural values and norms that exist about a peoples’ professions and their worth.
Despite being aware that there was more than one definition of what constituted a “very important job,” I still wanted that high paying, high status position; and decades after that chat, I landed it. But within less than a year, I had lost it. This was a huge failure to me―to reach the one goal I set out to achieve, only to fall flat. It was devastating. My confidence was gone, and it felt as if there was only me to blame. What if I had worked harder or had been smarter? Would my coworkers have liked me more? Looking back, I can see that the job was an unfortunate fit, and it didn’t help that the people were unprofessional and callous.
What I learned from that experience was that I was no longer going to strive for someone else’s definition of success. I made a personal commitment to use my time productively, to live as if kindness is a verb, and to realize that leaders don’t require fancy titles. Everyone has the ability to make a difference in someone’s life, and while setbacks happen to everyone, it doesn’t have to forever define you as a failure.
In some ways, I wish I could visit with my younger self and encourage her to develop her own value system and determine her own path. If I had chosen my own way and defined my own success, would others have had the power to make me feel like a failure because I had not met their expectations?
Through this blog, I will explore how society perpetuates the cultural values many use as a guide for major life decisions. My goal is to search for reasons we allow ourselves to be swept along and willingly follow those standards. We’ll start by identifying where cultural values come from and why they exist. From there, we will start a conversation and find ways to reimagine negative labels, such as “failure” and discuss what it means to be a success. Most importantly, we will stop putting ourselves and others into one of two categories―success or failure.
We all have felt as if we have failed at one time or another. The truth is that if we don’t reach a goal, we have only experienced a setback. It does not label us forever as failures. Setbacks are often opportunities for life growth, personal and/or professional. I hope you will join me each week as I reimagine failure and success and change the way American culture defines these two misused terms. In this space, we will have conversations, speak to experts, hold book reviews, hear stories from others, and find inspiration from one another. I hope you will join me.