The Arbitrary Nature of Success

College students strive for success. Sometimes that means not failing that hard science class. Other times it means maintaining a 4.0 over four years. Sometimes it just means graduating. Success is a word that means you’re good at something, but most of the time when a friend thinking about their future says they want to be successful they mean they want to make a lot of money, have a nice house, drive a fancy car, and go on expensive trips.

Success looks a certain way. If you close your eyes and think of the word success you might picture someone in a suit, a celebrity, or a world leader. Maybe you think of a business man like Elon Musk or maybe you picture a public figure like Emma Watson. Whoever you choose, you almost certainly think of who they are now rather than what it took to get them there.

Forbes named Kylie Jenner as one of the world’s richest self-made women. The controversy surrounding this includes the reason behind her riches: her family’s wealth. Having already famous parents and siblings, or even just a handful of good connections, give you a leg up in reaching “success.” We don’t start from the same place. While we do all have the same amount of time each day, where we come from, where we start, and where we plan on going forces us to utilize those same twenty four hours very differently. The most motivated person might have to work two jobs to pay off their student debt and not have the time to follow their dreams. Another motivated person might have the money to spend their free time pursuing their education and working towards their dream job. All in all, the money can make the success story but the success story doesn’t always make the money.

A successful person is often seen as a busy person. They’re the ones with the busy schedules, the color coded planners, the phones constantly buzzing with updates. The successful ones eat, sleep, and breathe accomplishing mountains of work. In college, this can mean that you schedule your days jam packed with activities and meetings. You may tell your friends your schedule and find pleasure in the shock on their faces. It may feel like you’re winning an invisible game. But truth be told, the busiest people aren’t always the most successful. Spreading yourself thin leads to lots in involvement but little participation. If you have twenty organizations all demanding your attention you never put your heart and soul into what you’re doing. You may be known for lots of things, but if you’re asked in depth about your experiences in one of the organizations you’re a part of, what answer will you give?

If what you’re doing with your free time is only to boost your resume and not boost your quality of life, that’s not true success.  True success is getting what you want out of your life. To all the freshmen I mentor: true success looks like you.

Success is a series of small wins.

Success is a mountain of small accomplishments that felt meaningless at the time. Think back to graduating high school. It took a long time to get from A to B, but you did it. You took your classes, did the math, survived the dreaded beep test in gym, and had some fun along the way. But before high school you had middle school and before that you had elementary school and before that you had preschool and before that you had to learn to talk and walk. All the little things we do each day, like making goals for ourselves and eating breakfast, can amount to something monumental if we want them to.

Right now, freshman year is a stepping stone. You’re adjusting to college and trying to figure your life out. Some of you probably feel a little lost. College often feels like two steps forward and one step back. It’s slow going. In the end, even if you don’t think you’re going to get to where you’re going, you’re going to get to where you need to be. The universe has a funny way of making that happen.

One of the silliest, yet most life changing things that I read freshman year was a tumblr post about a dog begging for a chocolate chip cookie. It goes along these lines: imagine you are enjoying a chocolate chip cookie while at home with your dog. He’s going to whine and pout and whimper trying to get that cookie. You wish you could give it to him to make him happy, but you know that if you do you could end up hurting him. There’s no way to make him understand that what he wants is bad for him. That’s like your connection to the universe. Whatever higher power is out there knows what’s best for you. You can want that metaphorical chocolate chip cookie more than anything else in the world, but if it’s going to hurt you then sometimes the universe will step in and protect you. You’ll never know why, and you’ll be just like that dog whimpering and hurt because you worked hard for something you didn’t get. And that’s okay. That’s life. That’s success. Successful people have to fail in order to succeed because nothing ever really works on the first go around. That’s freshman year for most people. It’s a trial run for college, and college is a trial run for adulthood. Even if the whole way is two steps forward and one step back, you’ll still get to the finish line if you just keep going.


For more of my thoughts on success during college, check out an old blog post I wrote by clicking here.

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