The Changing Meaning of Success Can Inspire Hope

By - August 18, 2020

A 2019 Gallup Poll found that while 68% of the those polled considered themselves successful, only 31% thought that others would see them that way. There’s a huge disconnect between “personal success” versus perceived societal success. This disconnect might explain why so many other studies show that less than half of US students were feeling engaged or hopeful for the future—as a society we care about perception. A Pew Research Study conducted in March of this year found that only 22 percent of those asked felt hopeful for the future “most of the time.”  

Being hopeful about the future keeps students and individuals engaged, makes more productive workers, and ultimately allows people to envision a reality different than the one they’re currently in, which is more important now than ever. Hope is about goal setting and working to create a plan to make that goal a reality. It’s about being able to envision yourself as successful, but as the aforementioned disconnect shows us, if we’re boxing in “success,” and focusing more on the perception of success, rather than what people actually want for their lives, we could be taking away the hope that could be the driving force behind an individual’s trajectory.   

Hope and success are interlinked. In order to drive one, the definition of the other needs to be reimagined. People have already started doing this. A Harvard study found that career success isn’t defined by achievements, but rather the co-workers you build meaningful relationships with. Career leaders have said in these times it’s not the most profitable or productive company that’s successful, but those who can adapt and look forward. A study by Strayer University found that, “Despite what the Merriam-Webster definition reads, success is better measured by the quality of relationships, feelings of self-fulfillment, and the achievement of personal goals rather than ‘the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.’”

So, how can we help redefine success for students? 

  • Focus on happiness- The same Strayer University study we just cited also states, “What we learned is that 90% of Americans believe success is more aligned with happiness than with power, possessions or prestige.” In a piece on redefining success for Forbes, entrepreneur John Halls discusses how unhappy many millionaire CEOs he’s worked with are. There’s a litany of other studies that show there’s not a correlation between happiness and wealth—this isn’t to say students shouldn’t work for financial freedom, just that it’s not the answer to all life’s problems.  
  • Don’t just focus on the success of overachievers- We feel compelled to state that we love overachievers. We love the innovation of good CEOs. But doing a cursory Google search of success will inevitably bring you to a host of articles that only ask CEOs, Ivy League grads, and tech-startup wunderkinds to define success. What about a nurse? A welder? A CTE instructor, tugboat captain, or graphic designer? Students should see models of success from every walk of life. One of our favorite Life Skills Videos features Cassy Electric COO Ebony Sullivan entitled “Leadership Doesn’t Come with a Title.” In the video, Ebony states, “anyone can be a leader in any capacity, in any role.” She’s talking about leadership, but could easily be talking about success. It’s what you make it. Let’s show students that.  
  • Success is not synonymous with a college degree- College should be a choice for students who want a job that requires a college degree. It is however, not the only postsecondary success story. Plenty of people don’t go on to college after high school and are able to achieve great success. 
  • Embrace failure- We love the title of this Business Insider article: “Most every successful person has a story of excruciating failure in their past—and for good reason.” Embracing failure, learning from it, and knowing how to weather it are all vital for success. We’re a society obsessed with winning, but it’s often in the losses where the most growth happens. A 2019 study found you learn best when you succeed about 85% of the time because you reflect and change. When a student fails, don’t act like it’s a success deterrent, even if they fail several times. Focus on what they can learn, overcome, and use as a tool for growth.  
  • Don’t box in success- People tend to establish arbitrary caveats to things. “You won’t be A if you do B.” “You won’t be successful if you don’t get good grades.” “How will you ever be successful if you get in trouble?” We’ve already established that success isn’t linear, nor does it look the same for everyone. There’s also a long tradition of gatekeeping who can be successful. Black students for example, statistically are much more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Kipp Charter Schools has recently rectified this. Their 25-year slogan, “Work hard. Be nice.” (and unsaid part being, “and you’ll succeed”) was recently retired after their CEO said it put a “value on being compliant and submissive.” You’ll only be successful if you act how we want you to, was the subtext. There’s some insidious rationale behind this gatekeeping we need to work together to overthrow. Part of this means ensuring every student deeply believes in their ability to not only achieve success but define it on their own terms.  
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