The Trap of the Success Myth
In which my inspirational life story doesn’t matter
My coworker Noha contacted me after I published my latest essay, “The Impact of Thankfulness,” requesting a phone call after congratulating me on a job well done. During that conversation, we laughed, talked about thankfulness and the influence of our cultural heritages on the topic, about our jobs, about her work in bringing Girls Who Code to Adobe, and about her volunteer work in engaging young women in tech careers. She proudly told me that she had recently received the Adobe Founders’ Award, one of the highest honors our company gives to its employees. At the end of the conversation, I switched back to the topic of my Medium blog, asking her: “What would you like to read?”
“You have such an inspiring story,” she replied almost immediately. “You’re a successful engineer and a musician and so much more, and young women out there need to hear stories like yours to inspire them to pursue careers in tech. They need to know it’s possible for them.”
I was skeptical, but Noha shared some personal stories of how she got involved in teaching and advocacy, and challenged me to do the same. I disconnected the call feeling as if I had a lot to process, and as I wrote down my thoughts, one question surfaced over and over again.
“What defines success?”
Desiring the Extraordinary
Success is an incredibly difficult topic to cover, primarily because it is inherently subjective. How can you tell if someone is successful in life? Back in my undergrad days, one of the student groups had an unofficial game they simply called “Life.” There were five categories, each corresponding with some form of “winning:” one point for having your own apartment, one point for having a job, and so on and so forth. If you had all five points when you graduated, you won the game.
As silly as the game seems now, I believe the same evaluation happens for us as we look at our own careers and the careers of others. Six-figure salary? Point. Own your own home? Point. Happily married? Point. Kids? Point, and another one if they’re successful, too. Climbing up the corporate ladder? Point. Perhaps we look at success as a measure of other factors, such as traveling the world, the ability to play an instrument or sing well, unusual talents or experiences, or even the pursuit of some noble goal.
Some people achieve these things by perseverance, others through sheer talent, and the blessed few by being at the right place at the right time.
The danger in this game is that it constantly puts us in a position of comparing ourselves to others. They’re a Vice President at 35, and I’m still working as an individual contributor. They’re able to go to Prague, and I can only afford a staycation. Their kid went to Harvard, and mine went to a state school. It places us in a position where we either win by accomplishing more than anyone else, or we lose by comparing ourselves — either consciously or subconsciously —to the person next to us.
I came face-to-face with this realization last year as I glumly considered myself as a working musician. I’ve been writing music with a man who toured internationally for two decades. I have many friends who are full time musicians, and I came to the realization that I had considered myself inferior as a musician when he complimented me on something I had done.
It’s very natural for us to desire to be extraordinary. We tell stories of superheroes and champions, white knights and warrior princesses, because we want to associate ourselves with these metaphors. We want to conquer our own lives and prove to the world that we are worthy.
But down this path lies madness. Keeping up with the accomplishment Joneses throws us into a cycle of comparison and insecurity, of unnecessary pressure and false expectations.
What could I tell these aspiring engineers? I’m an engineer at Adobe and have worked on some fantastic projects. I’m also a professional musician, a fourth-degree black belt, graduated from a top-name university, and grew up in a decidedly upper-middle class household in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. With enough work, you, too, can have my life!
I don’t see that as inspiring; I see that as intimidating. I recognize that I had many advantages growing up the way I did, with early access to technology and the license to dream. But I see this message as setting the bar of success upon accomplishments.
But what alternative message do I want to give these kids?
The World’s Identity Crisis
I was laid off from my first software job about a half an hour after stepping off a plane from a transformational three-week trip to Brazil. This was during the dot-com bust, and I spent six months looking for an equivalent job before broadening the scope of my job search.
During that time, people asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a software engineer,” I replied automatically, and they would invariably ask where I worked. When I answered “unemployed,” they would generally nod sagely, wish me the best, and continue in conversation about other topics.
Three months later, I found myself teaching English to 20 high school freshmen. I began introducing myself as a teacher, and discovered that I perceived a distinct difference in how people treated me. As a young engineer, people were impressed by the fact that I worked at a large company, doing interesting work that affected the global economy. As a teacher, I felt like I was a part of the mundane. Sure, people were accepting and supportive, but there seemed to be an underlying bias, something along the lines of: “If you can, do; if you can’t, teach.”
Something bothered me about this, though. Why was I defining myself by what I did? Shouldn’t I be more than a sum of my accomplishments and career choices? And if I weren’t, how should I define myself? And if I don’t define myself by my accomplishments or relationships, how do I determine someone else’s greatness?
After thinking about this for quite a bit of time, I ended up with a definition that looked nothing like my original list of accomplishments.
I am a person who chooses to live my life with integrity. I am a person who has chosen a faith and pursues it wholeheartedly. I am a person who chooses a life of service to those around me. I am a champion of the underdog, a bearer of compassion, a teller of stories, an agent of change in my environment, a speaker of truth. I am imperfect and broken, occasionally intelligent and, even more rarely, intelligible. I seek connection and laughter, stand in solidarity with the downtrodden, am human in my foibles and struggle with — and hopefully triumph over — my own fears and demons.
These are things that will not change; this is the fundamental essence of who I am. Take away the martial arts, the music, the words, the code, the profession, the skills, and even the experiences, and this is what is left.
But this essence is what can make a great person great. They may live an ordinary life on the surface, but they transform the people around them by living extraordinarily. It could be living with a profound disability with grace and courage. It could be surviving great trauma and finding joy despite the pain. It could be a person who centers a community by forming relationship after relationship with people on the fringes of the group, drawing them into the center. It could be someone who teaches with such profound humility that you can’t help but learn from them.
One such man was a retired pastor who passed away a couple of years ago. My memories of him are vague, as he attended a different service, but I remember he always arrived with a look of sheer joy on his face as he tottered into the building, hearing aids in both ears, leaning on the arm of his much-shorter wife. A friend of mine told me that this man approached him every week for years to encourage him with one sentence.
It wasn’t until this pastor passed away in his 90s that I found out more about his life. It was one that was unusual by any measure, involving so much intrigue and grief that it could have been the source of multiple Hollywood blockbusters. But what made him extraordinary was not what had happened to him; it was how he lived afterward, walking through life with an expression of peace on his face and the kindness to seek out a young man week after week to speak words of encouragement.
This is what people will remember about you after you leave their sphere of influence. Were you kind or were you mean? Did you walk alongside them and support them, or did you cut them down any chance you got? Were you collaborative or too proud to work with anyone else? Were you diligent or lazy? Were you generous or selfish?
The beauty of this, though, is that no matter what you do in life, you can still be a successful person. You don’t have to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. These are professions, or things that people do in order to put food on the table. They might even be passions, or things that people do because they genuinely love them.
You hear of people who retire and have no idea who they are any more because their entire identities are enmeshed with their careers. Once their careers are gone, what is left? They often spiral into depression, unsure of who they are once the structure of their job has disappeared.
Don’t fall into this trap: career success is great for the paycheck and may be a neat status symbol, but once it’s gone, it’s useless. It’s like keeping the hood ornament of an expensive car on your wall. It’s a status symbol, but the hood ornament without the car is pretty pointless. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for financial independence, providing for your family, and saving responsibly for retirement. But a career is a means to that end, not the end itself.
So, with this depressing thought, how does this apply to a message to bringing more young women into the tech pipeline?
An Open Letter to Young Women Considering a Career in Tech
Let’s just get this straight: a career in tech is a wonderful thing. There are a lot of smart people, a ton of interesting problems to solve, and a lot of benefits to being in the high tech world. But there are lots of options. You have lots of options. You could make a great living doing something else and continue to have a comfortable life.
From what I see, the industry as a whole is going through growing pains, especially when it comes to knowing what to do with its female participants. There are issues that we’re still working out having to do with bias and lack of diversity and pipeline and all the scary things you read about in the news. The unfortunate thing is that brogrammers and misogynists do exist, and some are even in positions of power.
But it’s not all like that, as there are many good people in this industry, people who have mothers and sisters and daughters and spouses and female friends that they deeply love and respect. These people will respect you and will encourage you. The most cognizant will raise you up as leaders and give you opportunities, just like any other worker. Who knows? This might be the norm when you get here.
For some of you, you’re looking at an industry reputedly full of awkward nerds and wonder if you’ll turn into one of them. No, you won’t. You are you, and we need your voice. If you’re the type of girl that loves numbers but hates video games, that’s okay. If you’re the type of girl that likes to solve problems but would prefer to wear a skirt every day instead of the jeans that I do, that’s okay, too. We need your voice.
Because we’re shaping the future. Software products like Photoshop and Facebook and video games and the bajillion apps in mobile app stores around the globe are changing the way we’re interacting with the world. Hardware products like secure switches for the Internet backbone and new computer hardware and interaction devices and advances in medical technology are fundamental to our digital millennium. Without your voice, the world will continue to be the same, represented by the same people thinking in the same way.
Maybe you’ve told yourself that you can’t do this, that engineering is too hard, despite the fact that you maintain a great GPA in your high school classes. Maybe your detractors have teased you or have shamed you into hiding your natural intelligence and instincts. Maybe these negative messages run through your head over and over again, like a song stuck on infinite repeat.
If so, this message is especially for you:
- You are clever enough to master the material. Some may have more of an aptitude than others, but you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.
- You are stubborn enough to persevere despite trials and tribulations. Sometimes, these look like financial hurdles or a job opportunity lost.
- You are flexible enough to roll with the punches. You are capable of having more than one career in your lifetime and are not stuck in a career you hate.
- You are diligent enough to work hard on everything that crosses your path.
- You are humble enough to admit your failures and celebrate your successes.
- You are connected enough to know how to work in teams. This is a critical job skill that can make for a great team.
- You are wise enough to know that there is a lot more life out there than just a career.
- You are enough.
Seize the day and make the most of your current opportunities. But remember that you are not defined by what you do, but by who you are. And who you are is more than enough.
Go on out there and make us proud.
Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainefinnell. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.