success, or something like it

I used to feel guilty for being who I am.

motherteresahelpingI am a U.S. citizen. I was born to two loving parents who worked hard to provide for their children. I have never had to worry about food or shelter. I have never been abused, raped, or neglected. I have a college education and have been privileged to travel to many different parts of the world.


Why me? Why did I laugh as a child while other children cried?

It is a question I long have struggled with, and yet, as I have grown, I have come to realize several things. First, no one has a perfect life. Even the rich. Especially the rich. Also, a comfortable life does not bring happiness. In a previous post I talked about the angst I felt when I realized I would not have a dryer or air-conditioning or heating in my apartment in Taiwan. No dryer? No air-conditioning? How would I survive?

Actually, I would. And not only that, I would thrive. I would revel in the fact that I could, in fact, adapt to my surroundings. I would realize that my heart swelled with pride because I didn’t actually need some of life’s “comforts” to get by.

But it’s more than that, too. With each station in life comes responsibility.

photo-102I attended a wedding shower a few years ago. It was held outdoors on a lovely spring day. The birds were chirping and the sun was shining; the bride-to-be was glowing. But my enjoyment of the event was ruined when, in passing, a lady said to me, “It’s okay—your turn will come.”

I was shocked. Really? My turn will come? Apparently being single and pursuing dreams other than a 3-bedroom home with a white picket fence was not her idea of success.

So then what is success? If the 29-year-old woman faking eye allergies (true story from my time as an ophthalmology assistant) is happy sitting at home collecting disability, should she be considered a success? She is, after all, happy.

Or is success about more than happiness just like happiness is about more than comfort?

To me success means recognizing who you are and where you come from and what you have to offer to the world—and then doing everything you can to make it happen. So you’re a bus driver and you’ll never swim in gold. So what? What kind of bus driver are you? How hard do you work? How do you treat the people around you? How much do you love? . . . Some women were meant to be housewives. I have friends who only ever wanted to be moms. Is there anything wrong with that? No! But is there anything wrong with the fact that I’m not like them? No!

Honestly, the world would be a lot better off if everyone would worry more about their own contribution to humanity—a.k.a. helping others and being the best person they can: taking risks and pushing themselves and picking themselves up when they fall—and less about . . . well, everything else.

Stepping off soap box NOW.

Note: During this next week I have to force myself to focus on my own “success” by working on some freelance articles I’ve been putting off. So, if I don’t post for a few days, that’s why! Thank you for your patience.
Images: Google and Pinterest

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89 thoughts

  1. Jessica, I want to say a lot. The issue you’ve raked up is very close to my heart. I can say a lot. But I thought it would be appropriate to just write one meaningful quote that is in resonance with your post. But damn! Just where are the exact quotes when I need them.

    In essence, the quote means that the truest measure of success is giving one’s best to life, no matter what one is and where one is at a given point. Even if a ‘lowly’ shoeshine boy does his best to shine shoes, he stands the chance to become the best shoeshine boy in town.

    It is a quote by Swami Vivekananda. I strongly recommend you to search for his quotes online. The answers will come to you. Let me know if the recommendation worked for you. Very thoughtful post, and I can totally relate to the stage you’re going through now – asking questions, understanding life better.

    • Thanks, Subh. If Vivekananda’s quote says what you say it says, then he and I are on the exact same page.

      I looked briefly and found this quote: “The great secret of true success, of true happiness, is this: the man or woman who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish person, is the most successful.” Not sure if that’s the one you were referring to?

      But I also really liked this one, which could be tied into my post “greater than all these“: “May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians give strength to you to carry out your noble idea.”

    • The more this power of concentration, the more knowledge is acquired, because this is the one and only method of acquiring knowledge. Even the lowest shoeblack, if he gives more concentration, will black the shoes better; the cook with concentration will cook a meal all the better. In making money, or in worshiping God, or in doing anything, the stronger the power of concentration, the better will that thing be done. This is the one call, the one knock, which opens the gates of nature.

      – Swami Vivekananda

      Is this the quote you were referring to?

  2. I know exactly what you mean. I’m spending my life doing what I love — writing and drawing and enjoying my sweet solitude. My blood pressure surges whenever people treat me like there’s something WRONG with me because I don’t have a wife and 2.5 children and a mini-van littered with discarded Happy Meal toys. They just assume I’m sad and lonely. It NEVER occurs to them that I have DIFFERENT goals and desires than THEY do. (OK, now I’m stepping off MY soapbox.)

  3. “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”-John Lennon

    Great post, Jess. Keep pursuing your dreams, girl! :-)

    Stand up for your dreams,
    Even if you have to stand alone.
    The strongest eagles are those who fly solo,
    And they are the ones who reach
    The highest peak of mountains.

    #PS: what do you mean by ‘faking eye problems’?

    • That Lennon quote is a good one. I’ve heard it before. But I still maintain that life and success is about more than being happy. ;)

      Faking eye problems… I guess I should have clarified. I used to work in an ophthalmology office. This particular patient was pretending to have terrible eye allergies which she claimed were preventing her from being able to work. She was obviously lying, and it irritated me. Why should my tax dollars go towards making sure this perfectly capable young woman could laze around at home?

  4. I love the issue you are writing about. I often wondered if happiness came with a dollar sign, and I finally came to the conclusion that it is about what you love. There are many I know personally that claim to be happy with their stage in life, only to find out when adversity hits that they are upset with their job, marriage and life. These are the ones that are very selfish in the way they live life. They never “pay forward.” Life to me is so much better when giving to others. It is one of the reasons I write. I write for myself, but what keeps me going are those that say that something I wrote touched them or helped them. It is little, but can last long after I’m gone. I could write on, but you struck on something that I have thought about lately as well.

    Don’t ever feel guilty about where you came from, adversity, like you said, hits the rich as well as the poor. It is how you well you overcome it and thrive from it, and then giving back when possible.

    Talk about soap box!! Great write as always Jessica!

    • In a post a while back I talked about taking cards and candy canes to patients in the hospital on Christmas. I hadn’t done anything like that in a while. The joy and thankfulness on the patients’ faces made that Christmas one of the best I’ve ever had.

      Happiness does not come with a dollar sign. Many nice houses veil pain and hurt and confusion, even torture. Money can make life easier in some ways, but I agree: it is by no means a sign of true success or happiness.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Kurt!

  5. I relate a lot to this post; everything in it is so true and hits close to home with me as well. But most of all, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that definition of success! It is just so perfect. I’ve been going through a lot of job interviews lately, and thinking a lot about what my greatest achievement so far has been. It’s been really difficult to articulate what I’m really most proud of – figuring out that I DON’T want to be a doctor – and so I’ve been saying other things, which I’m also proud of, but which aren’t quite as honest. Your definition of success will definitely help me to articulate what I mean – my greatest accomplishment was realizing who I am, what my strengths are, and how I can best utilize my strengths and interests to help make the world a better place. Thank you!!

    • Aww, I’m so glad you can relate to this, too. I’ve struggled a bit myself—comparing myself to friends who’ve chosen to become MDs or pursue other paths that world considers “successful.” It hasn’t mattered that, if I’d pursued those, too, I would have been being dishonest and, in essence, killing a part of myself.

      There can’t be a single status one must reach in order to be considered successful. We are all too different on so many levels. But we *can* discover who we are and know whether or not we are living up to our potential. That is the reason we have consciences.

      Thank you for your comment!

  6. It doesn’t get much more patronising or less empathetic than ‘your time will come’. We don’t all need everyone to ‘get us’ but we do people close to us to at least understand that we have our own dreams, desires, goals… and that those may not always tally with theirs. Be confident enough to stay true to yourself. And don’t feel guilty for who you are.

    • Thanks, Mark. Yeah, it’d be nice if more people would recognize that not everyone has to follow the same path, or even should. Most of the historical figures society reveres were not people who followed the status quo. Funny how people forget that when it comes to “real life.” My parents are in medicine; thank God they didn’t try to cram that down my throat. I am very lucky to have supportive people in my life, even if I often feel misunderstood. Thank you for your kind comment.

  7. I remember having a similar conversation with a person I met in a coffee shop a long time ago. He had an interesting answer to how does he know he is successful. He told me that if he wakes up and he is above ground then he is successful. I agree with what you said. Every day I try to be successful by doing something to help mankind.

    • Yeah. I guess I just feel that we were all called to do our best in everything that we do—and to do good, of course. It’s a mindset. If we get to the end of our lives and know that we gave it everything we had, then that, to me, is success. And that’s something no one else can judge. That’s between you and your maker.

  8. Great post Jessica! I think about this all the time. Some people have spent a fair bit of time telling me how successful I am and that they’re jealous of the opportunities that I’ve had. I know I’ve been able to do so me pretty great things, but I feel the furthest thing from successful. I often wonder what would make me feel successful. I know what I want out of life, but I’m not sure that it’s realistic or even right to demand it. I had a stint when I worked as a personal trainer. It was the most fullfilling job I have ever done. I was in love with it. But i could not pay the bills. Now I do what pays the bills, but I’m emotionally dissatisfied. It is a quandry.

    • Wow, Heather. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. It’s funny that people would consider you successful because of some of the opportunities that you’ve had. Quite frankly, I’ve felt that people feel the opposite about me. Because I am not in a set career, and because I spent three years teaching in Asia… Well, that was just “playing.” That wasn’t real work… I scoff… I think God gave us desires and talents for a reason. Don’t ever feel like you don’t deserve what you want out of life. (Unless, of course, you want to sit at home and collect welfare… Then I think you’re not being honest with yourself. Haha.) So long as the things you desire are not purely selfish, I know God will bless you… You aren’t enjoying teaching in Korea?

  9. Jessica, this is a wonderful post; a recognition that material or financial “success” (typically the modern American definition) is no reflection of exponential peace, contentment, or emotional/spiritual fulfillment. How fondly will people, family, and friends remember you after you are dead and gone. What stories will be told about you?

    The last 3-4 months I watched with tearful profound respect and admiration those PJ’s in National Geographic Channel’s “Inside Combat Rescue” — medics who fly (via HH60 Pave Hawk helicopters) into combat zones rescuing not only our American wounded, but allied Afghani soldiers as well as Afghani citizens (children included) caught in the crossfire or detonating IED’s. Some of the horrific situations they put themselves into in order to try and save lives — particularly those who have just lost a leg, both legs, an arm, head-injuries, etc, etc — for the pay they receive toward a now 12-year war, for a people/country that will possibly fall right back into terrorist control when America leaves….is for me THE PUREST truest definition of human success!

    And that sort of stuff happens every day and has been happening for over 12 years now! Unbelievable. And will those PJ’s reap financial or material “success”? No, because the sort of life they were experiencing and attempting to restore for others is a purpose/calling that far exceeds any domestic American definition can attempt to capture. Words cannot express how much respect I have for soldiers and military-medics choosing to deal with and manage the results of war, hate, and death-wishers. They’re a whole other breed.

    • That sounds like a series everyone should watch. I’ll admit I haven’t seen it. But you are right. I, too, have enormous respect for anyone who would put their life and health on the line to save others. There is no amount of compensation, monetary or otherwise, that is enough for what those soldiers are/have been doing. Truly, they are heroes and, in many cases, the very embodiment of “success.”

      Thank you, as always, for your comment.

  10. I think your definition of success should take residence in the world’s dictionaries. People then chasing success would be happier and we’d all be better off for it.

  11. Well done Jessica, a thoughtful post once again! You tackle some good points. Our privileged or underprivileged backgrounds or standing should play no role in measuring success. We’re all gifted with something special, something that can change lives for the good whether it be small or big. The question is, as you pointed out, are you giving what you’ve got???!!!

  12. one of my favorite authors once said, “we are all called by God to be the very best stewards of all the gifts, talents, and opportunities entrusted to us in this lifetime. The result is true success.”
    keep it up girl… you are doing big things!

  13. Hi Jess. Terrific post and thoughts as usual. You spoil us in that regard.

    This weekend I began at last to read a book that’s been on my list for ages: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He wrote the book in nine days after being liberated from Auschwitz. I’m going to have to purchase a paper version so that I can breakout my highlighter. Using a Kindle to do so just isn’t the same.

    Anyhow, in the forward to the book I found this passage and after reading your post above thought I’d share it with you:

    Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.

    • I’ve not read that book, but it is on my list, too. (And I agree that a “real” book is far better than a Kindle or the like. I *love* underlining and making notes in the margins.) Although I did not live through Auschwitz, I fully agree: Life is about more than pleasure or power or wealth or any material thing. Because, when everything is said and done, what is left? You can’t take money or power to the grave.

  14. I’ve had similar experiences in my life too. I’ve often come across people who’ve given me free advice. You won’t be earning enough, you’ll ruining your life take up this as your profession… and so on.

    When will they ever understand that all fingers are not the same?

  15. How could I not click follow after reading this? Even though I have promised myself that I need to get to work on my half finished novel, there are times I find myself reading and having no choice but following gifted writers! You my dear are one I can’t pass up! Love your work!

    • Thank you! I know the feeling of needing to work on something but feeling pulled into the blogging world. Those are my emotions, too, right now. ;) Your kind words mean so much. Good luck with your novel! You are more ambitious than I.

  16. This is a great one Jessica. I sat nodding my head in agreeance and saying uh huh, uh huh, yep ;) I saw a quote the other day and it said “All we need is less.” Some of the things we complain about would be blessings to others. I like to hear others voice the same things I’m thinking. Gracias my friend :)

  17. Jessica, great writing, and I particularly enjoyed: “To me success means recognizing who you are and where you come from and what you have to offer to the world—and then doing everything you can to make it happen.”

    I’ll be using that and attributing it back to you in the near future. Well captured.


  18. i had/have the same pondering!
    When i turned 21 i got my first car…i was soooooo excited!…it was a small peugeot but felt like a luxury car…i remember waiting at the traffic light seeing older people in their 50s-60s driving old kinda wrecked cars and thinking, “why am i driving this car and this guy is driving the damp!?” “what work did i do that i can afford this car that the other guy didn’t?”

    There is a line in the movie “contact” with Judie Foster. Her mum and dad have died and she is like 12 or something. her guardian then tells her: “we are not always meant to know why things happen the way they do, sometimes we just have to accept them as God’s Will.”

    In these Godless times we live in where we need to justify everything, “God’s Will” doesn’t quite resonate with us… We need to explain everything and find some kind of rationale or universal justice/law behind it. And guess what, we do. We basically generate an explanation for everything as we are conditioned to classify any situation under these two terms you so wisely used in your post: Success and happiness.

    P.S. you said you don’t watch movies but hey, if you haven’t, you gotta see this one!

    have a great weekend

    • Hey! Good to hear from you!

      I *have* seen the movie contact, but that was a while ago. I’ll have to recheck it out. “God’s will…” It’s an interesting phrase I’m not sure I believe in. I believe he opens doors and closes them, and has directions for our lives, but I really feel this world is so f’d up that most of what goes on here is not, actually, God’s will. So yes, I agree with your analysis…

      Our lives are both directed by circumstance and then what we make of it. Life is far from fair in some ways, and more than fair in others. It’s an interesting paradox…

      Thanks for stopping by! You have a great weekend, too.

  19. “To me success means recognizing who you are and where you come from and what you have to offer to the world—and then doing everything you can to make it happen.” You are truly an inspiration :)

  20. I love your thoughts. Please know you are amazing. “To me success means recognizing who you are and where you come from and what you have to offer to the world—and then doing everything you can to make it happen.” This is by far one of the best definitions of success, that much common placed word, I’ve read. Love and success to you. Alex

    • Thank you so much, Alex. And sorry for my delayed response! I’m glad you like it and that there are other people who feel the same… I’ve just always felt we can’t base success on where we were born or on material things, etc. Life is so much bigger than that. Best regards, Jess :)

    • That’s a fair question, and, honestly, no, I don’t think there is. Everyone is different and has been born into different circumstances with different abilities. Ultimately, we are our own judge as to whether or not we have been successful. This is why we have consciences. Even a really lazy person knows deep down when they could be doing better.

      At least that’s the way I see it. Feel free to disagree! And thank you so much for commenting!

  21. Thinking about others helplessness and disabilities or other lacking probably the best thing for mankind but this is also true that making commentary about others personal life isn’t actually good…Cause we never know how they feel life or what their point of views are…Rather we should judge people by their deeds… Success is something in my term of explanation is making people happy and smile and give them a moment of such happiness which is perhaps more than anything that earthly any possession could possibly do…!!
    I love this article Jess… Thank you for feeling so intensely….!! ~ Kazi

    • Sweet Kazi. Yes, the most powerful thing in this world is a person’s deeds. I fully agree that that is the only thing by which we can be judged… We all come from different walks of life… No two people have walked the same path. We can’t ever judge until we’ve been in someone’s shoes, and since we can never *be* in someone else’s shoes… I guess I’m just saying that we shouldn’t judge each other but worry instead of being the best people that we ourselves can be…

      I’m glad you can tell how important this is to me. I can sense that it’s important to you, too. ;) xo jess

  22. Hi Jessica – I don’t know how I found you, but I’ve been enjoying your blog for the past hour or so – a rare chunk of time that I was not engaged with things I want/need to be doing. Yes I read your entire story of your accident. It was clear and raw and honest. Kudos.
    I think there’s no other definition of success than being authentic, following that still small voice that says yes to this/no to that, that voice that keeps you on track, that keeps you in your heart, and therefore loving the life that your are and consequently loving others. An epiphany a while back – I saw with absolute clarity that people simply cannot be any other way than the way they are. Their essence is immutable.
    Very nice to meet you. Off now to check out some of your posts about Asia having just spent nearly 6 months in India and SE Asia (but not Taiwan).

    • Hi Alison,

      Wow. Thank you so much for taking the time to look at some of my work — both older and newer — and especially the posts about my rock-climbing accident. Your time is valuable, I know, so that you’d spend it looking at my blog means so much!

      I fully agree that listening to your heart and being your authentic self is success. That goes right along with “knowing who you are and where you came from…” I do agree that the essence of people is immutable. My Nana used to say a kids’ true character was fully developed by the age of 3.

      Alas, I haven’t written as many posts about SE Asia as I’d intended to. I kept a separate blog while in Taiwan and, though I started “shift” in Hong Kong, I really didn’t get it going until after I’d moved home. I hope to move back in a year or so, though, and my experiences in Asia have tinged (in a good way) everything I write and the way I see all of life.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting. I am eager to check out more of your site, as well. I hope you’re having a wonderful day!


  23. i’ve learned more being broke the last couple of years than I ever did when I didn’t have to think twice before buying a latte. That’s where I think you can find success, when you are almost forced to examine.

    • That’s a good point, Jeffery. When we’re at the bottom of the barrel, it’s hard *not* to examine what’s really important. And of course, what’s really important will vary from person to person. I guess that’s why I could never accept the idea that there is only one definition of success. We are all so different — and awesome!

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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