I am a college graduate. I have a good job where I enjoy my work and make a good amount of money. I am, by many people’s definition, a success. However, I’ve been wracked recently by one question: How do I define my own success?

I am thoroughly entrenched in adulthood now, and the means by which I define my life are basically 100 percent up to me. No more parents, no more training wheels. But lately, I’ve found that my job has been the main determiner of success or failure in all aspects of life.

I decide a day’s worth based on how my day at work went. Did my boss praise my effort? Did a client compliment me? If yes, then today was a good, successful day.

Was I reprimanded by my superiors? Did a client complain about a late report? If yes, then today was not so good. It was a bad, unsuccessful day — a failure.

Why Use Only Our Career to Define Success?

The thing is, I don’t necessarily believe success should be determined in such a fashion; I don’t think the worth of any given day should come down to how good your eight hours in the office were. How, then, do we move beyond this mindset? First, I think we have to dig into the issue a little bit.

Most Americans Determine Success Using Career-Related Metrics

If you ask most people to define a “successful” person, they will, amongst other things, tell you that that person has an important career that makes them a lot of money.

An important, high-paying job is the endgame for many people in America, myself included. A good career is the result of numerous years of academic and professional achievement. It is the result of hard work — it represents hard work that has finally paid off. That’s the standard definition of success in a culture that invented the American Dream.

The money aspect plays a large part as well, perhaps a larger one. Money is a near-universal metric by which to measure success. Money opens the doors to numerous possibilities. It is a direct reward, a direct source of validation. If you’re not making a lot of money, you’re not likely to be perceived by others as successful, regardless of how happy or satisfied you may be with your work. You may not perceive yourself as successful, even if you’re generally happy with your life and your career.

Money is the most important measurement of success in America, and your career is the primary way you acquire money. In that way, success and your career become intertwined.

Success is Mapped Out for You… Until It Isn’t

From day one of kindergarten, I was told what path I was to follow. I was told which benchmarks I was to surpass, and how hard I needed to work (and how “smart” I needed to be) to surpass them. From about five years of age on, I was told that being successful meant doing well in school, going to college, and getting a high-paying office job.

I did exactly that, and now that I’m at the end of that path, I don’t know exactly where to go next. I don’t know what to do besides work, make money, pay off my student loans, and somehow find a way to move out of my parent’s house. But to where? And why?

The structure of my young life was set by my parents and my teachers, and now I must set the structure for my own future. What is my next benchmark to hit? Marriage? Purchasing a house? Raising a family of my own?

Those things are the standard “big life events” of adulthood, but they appear nebulous to me. At age 22, I still feel much too young. There’s also the question of if I actually want any of that. Sometimes one or two of them sound appealing, but so far none have been enticing enough that I feel the need to work toward them actively.

I am in a bit of a limbo, then. I currently have nothing to strive for really; I have nothing I can make significant progress toward. Since there are no feelings of tangible progress, there are no feelings of success, of overcoming a challenge or reaching a goal. Therefore, I must cling to the one thing that gives me clear indicators of success or failure in life. The one place where I am rewarded or punished, the place where I can gauge progress or failure based on promotions or termination: my job.

Can We Move Beyond the Career-Exclusive Definition of Success?

I think so, and I think it starts with us reviewing and addressing the reasons for our career-exclusive definition of success.

Facing America’s Definition of Success

The solution for transcending American society’s money- and career-focused idea of success is simple in concept but gravely difficult in practice.

All one must do is shed their need for external validation and the approval of others. You must cease to care if others think you’re underachieving in your vocation or way of living life. Like I said, it’s easy to think about doing that, but not so easy to actually put it into practice.

Others cannot define success for you.

I think it’s important to remember that other people cannot define success for you. They can tell you their definition of success, and they can most certainly judge you for not living up to it, but at the end of the day, it’s their definition. Also, keep in mind that if the people around you are constantly disapproving of what makes you truly happy, then there’s a chance that your social circle is a bit toxic. Don’t isolate yourself, but don’t be afraid to do some social housekeeping.

The chances are high that you’ll always live below someone else’s expectations. As long as you make yourself proud, and as long as you maintain positive mental health, you should consider yourself a success.

Facing the Uncertain Path Toward the Future

The advice I have here is simple: find something worth working toward. I cannot tell you what to work toward because then I’d be deciding your path for you.

Personally, in the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to become something of a Renaissance Man (excuse the pretentiousness). Someday, I want to be the most interesting person in any given room. I want to be the guy who has traveled far and wide, the guy who has read hundreds of books and can converse with you about any given subject. I want to know and experience everything, and I’m aware that this is impossible.

The impossibility of the goal makes the chase worthwhile; I’m hoping to find some other, more realistic purpose or purposes to pursue along the way. Your pursuit may not be the same, but I think it’s key to chase something larger than yourself, something time-intensive and difficult.

A detailed plan complete with goals and performance benchmarks isn’t necessary, but it may provide you with all the structure you’ve been missing. I believe that as long as you have an idea or a semblance of an idea of what you want, you can begin making progress in that direction. When you can begin making progress, you can begin to define a new conception of success that doesn’t just involve your nine-to-five.

Featured Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash
Photo by Muhammad Rizwan on Unsplash