As Americans, we generally put a lot of stock into the American Dream concept — the idea that hard work will eventually lead us to success. But do you ever think about how we define "success"? Results shared in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll claim that the changing economy impacts the way we define success, especially for younger generations. As Ronald Brownstein at The Atlantic puts it, younger generations are "questioning the pathway that earlier generations considered the most likely route to achieving their personal and economic goals." But I wonder if maybe we're viewing the idea of "success" too narrowly — it's an intensely personal thing, and what reads as successful to one person may be something entirely different to another.
Personally, when I look at the pathways, both in career and in education, of my older relatives and neighbors, I can't imagine such a straight, fixed path to success. Nor can I imagine my peers measuring success in the same way: In my own group of peers, many of our parents already owned a home and had begun the jobs they'd keep until retirement at our age. Even after a lot of thinking, I don't know a single person in my age group who fits that criteria (though if you do, good on you!). With more people going to college and a smaller job market, it's hard to imagine following the straight, neat path of older generations; the times have changed, and so too must each of our journeys.
I'm wiling to argue that this definition of success causes some anxiety in younger generations as well, as studies show we're worried about the cost of buying a home and about paying off student debt. Speaking of student debt, both it and attending college come up frequently in the Heartland Monitor Poll — explained Nathaniel Hill, a 20-year-old in Spokane who is studying to become an aircraft mechanic, “To get somewhere, you have to have [more] education than somebody else. But that costs a lot of money.” This is in contrast to the 57 percent of people polled who believe that debt is an obstacle to achieving the American Dream. In this sense, it can feel like the younger generation is caught between a rock and a hard place.
All of this leads me to wonder: What are the ways to define success which have nothing to do with money? Is there a way we can talk about success without bringing finances into it? I think so. Again, what counts as "success" for one person may not be the same as what counts as it for another — but these six signs? They're a pretty good indication that you're "doing it right," no matter what "it" is or how much money you make.
1. You Take Pride in Your Work
This one feels obvious, but I think it's important to point out. Even if you aren't earning a hefty salary (or a salary at all), but still take pride in the work you do, I think that's definitely a sign of success. Taking pride in your work is often a signal of having a strong work ethic, as well as possessing great leadership skills. It's easy to fall into the mindset that you should only take pride in your work if it meets a certain piece of criteria (ie, you make a certain amount of money working on it, or it gets a certain amount of attention, etc) but I think being proud of what you do on a regular basis is a sign of success in itself.
2. You Have Awesome Friendships
Now, I think it's perfectly okay to be a lone wolf, but overall, I think great friendships are a thing of value, and therefore definitely a success in my book. Cultivating personal relationships isn't always easy, especially when you're experiencing other life changes and navigating adulthood. While work-life balance is key (devoting all of your spare time to your friends instead of getting enough sleep or getting to work on time, for example, is probably not a terribly good idea), I think the importance of friendships often gets overlooked when people talk about success. You can make all the money in the world, but that doesn't give you the emotional connection or support that comes with a group of close friends.
3. You Have Peace of Mind
There's an old saying that you can't put a price on having peace of mind. Not everyone can quit or refuse a job based on their ethics or values, of course, but I do think there's something to be said for having a career you feel good about. If you're up at night wondering if the impact you made on the world that day was more negative than positive, it might be time to rethink how you define success. Is it just the paycheck? Or do you want to feel at peace with what you're contributing to the society around you? This one definitely differs for everyone, and it's especially complex for socio-economic reasons, but I think it's always something to keep in mind (no pun intended).
4. You Are Organized
Some people are messy. That's OK! But I think being organized is legitimately a sign of success. Organization not only saves you stress in the long run (because there is nothing worse than the daily struggle of trying to find your keys in the morning), but often helps keep your living space clean and tidy. Organization, to me, shows that someone values their belongings as well as their stress level.
5. You Prioritize Your Health
Making time to prioritize your health is not always an easy task. Between school, work, and familial obligations, a lot of people find themselves putting their health (both mental and physical) on the back burner. To me, taking the time to prioritize your health is definitely a sign of success because it shows that you value yourself and your well-being. If exercise is important to you, it's a sign of success if you actually go to the gym, take a morning jog, or take that yoga class you've been thinking about.Those moles you've been wanting to get checked out, for example? Make a doctor's appointment now, rather than later.
I think mental and emotional health comes in here, too. Being able to identify that you need help, support, or guidance is definitely a sign of success. In spite of the stigma surrounding mental health, it's definitely important to reach out for help when you need it.
6. You Can Be Alone
Being alone can be a pretty terrifying feeling. Some people are extroverts and literally feed off of other people's energy, of course, so I'm not going to advise anyone to isolate themselves if they can't bear it. But I do think there's value in spending time with just yourself, to let your mind unwind and give you time to reflect and gain perspective. The world is pretty fast-paced and it can be easy to go through big decisions or major moments without slowing down and catching your breath. I also think spending time alone can be a sign of confidence: if no one wants to see that movie, go by yourself! Everyone busy but you still want to get brunch? Get a table for one! Spending time alone, while doing something you enjoy, is totally a sign of success.
In all, I think it's safe to say the definition of the American Dream is changing, and our discussion of success is ever-evolving. If you value more traditional marks of success (for example, purchasing a home or having a life-long career with one company), that's OK! If those goals don't resonate with you, that's also OK! The way I see it, the most important thing when it comes to measuring success is that it should be something that you personally connect to, and not someone else's definition.