July 6, 2016

On Success

During my last week in sixth grade we had a “retirement party” for our math teacher. I’m making an assumption that my school wasn’t the only one following the trend of peers signing white t-shirts with permanent marker, much like a yearbook. When Mrs. Cleveland signed mine, she gave me a little pep talk on how she planned to see my “name in lights one day: doctor, or lawyer” (I’m sure she meant a la business sign with a backlight and not Hollywood bulbs) – it’s rather empowering looking back, sure. I had a teacher at a backwoods school that was encouraging a girl to be a doctor instead of a nurse or secretary and hitting high standards, so I’m thankful for that. It even sounded really good at the time.

After I passed the age of wanting to perform by way of singing or acting (though don’t let my car or closet mirrors know), doctor and lawyer were exactly the kind of jobs I dreamed about. That’s what success looked like, I had been taught. From a very early age, I knew much was expected out of me, whether from my parents or the high school teachers who led the 4th grade GT group. In most ways, this was very helpful to me – it was great for my self-esteem (until my teenage years came along), it made me ambitious (and to not surround myself by others who weren’t), it made me work hard at getting a full-ride scholarship (without ever mentioning their growing scarcity), etc. I’m entirely grateful to my wise elders for telling me how smart I was during my younger days instead of focusing on being cute (though it sure was a slap in the face come college when you realize just how average you really are).

My point of this ramble is it taught me one version of success. To get excellent grades, to impress your professors, to get a job with a certain minimum starting salary, and to buy a nice fat house in the suburbs.

If you had told little Karen she would ever consider being a stay-at-home mom who took any amount of time away from work past maternity leave, she would have laughed at you. If you had told little Karen she would end up at a job that pays less than a teacher’s salary without even getting summers off, she would have laughed at you. If you had told even 13-year-old Karen that one day she would go back to valuing playing outside more than playing the Sims and writing fan-fiction with an ever-paling complexion, she would have laughed at you. If you had told her one day not only would politics not bore her, but she would be passionate about social change, you would’ve at least earned a disbelieving look. But approaching-25-Karen knows better now. She realizes success simply means getting what you want out of life, and that everybody wants something different.

Present-Karen knows that as long as she can pay the bills, rewarding work is more important than a fat house in the suburbs that she wouldn’t even want. Present-Karen loves working with children and families and giving them support during stressful times in their life. Present-Karen appreciates simple life – getting back to the basics of: cooking food from scratch, taking free hikes, being a maker in every shape and form. And Present-Karen knows this could change back just as it changed to the way it is now, and that’s okay.


It’s funny because I have an older cousin that seems to have already gone through a lot of these phases and then some. She was incredibly smart, got wrapped up in traveling and community-service-type work, and eventually settled down into being a stay-at-home mom and then selling skincare products on the side a la Mary Kay style for some extra dough that still worked with her lifestyle. I was so confused by this for the longest time. I was confused by a friend in college, who was more intelligent and artistically gifted than me, when she said she’d be happy to just be a stay-at-home mom. I could "never" do that - I'd be bored to tears, I wouldn't be "challenging" myself.

What you want out of life will change. One day you'll wake up and realize squirming through a sweaty, claustrophobic crowd with mediocre music blaring through okay-sound systems doesn't sound as appealing as bushwacking your way to a glorious waterfall or kneading homemade bread with your significant other or listening to an itty-bitty's laughter when you tickle them, or whatever your version of that is, maybe it's the reverse. 

Success just means you're doing what makes you happy, that you're at peace with who you are, that you're not stuck trying to be someone your 12 year old self thought you'd be. I'm feeling mostly successful today. 

Kayla Marie Photography

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