Is How You Define Success Making You Miserable?
I came across an article in the Atlantic today about mommy blogger, Amber Fillerup Clark, who runs a very popular website detailing everything about her life, her two children, husband and one adorable dog. According to the article, Amber has 1.3 million Instagram followers, 227,000 YouTube fans, and 250,000 monthly blog readers. Wow. I had never heard of Amber or her blog before, but being featured in the Atlantic is a pretty big deal, so before long I was making my way through the Clark family’s Hawaiian vacation pictures, and feeling mesmerized by just how freaking amazing this woman’s hair looks all the time. I finally went back and read the rest of the article, and after the descriptions of what it takes to be a ‘’relatable influencer’’, I went from feeling envious to kind of sad for her. The idea of being ‘on’ all the time and having to constantly look for opportunities to generate content seems exhausting. At the same time, how many 20-something year olds, just growing their families are making well over seven figures? I found the whole thing fascinating. Living a life where every moment had to be considered for its Instagram worthiness would be claustrophobic and not for me, but clearly 1.3 million people find her and/or her lifestyle worth investing some of their own precious time into. This phenomenon got me thinking about success, and how we perceive it. To any outsider, Amber’s online following definitely rings of success. Who wouldn’t want to have the kind of platform she has, and the opportunities that it affords her. I know in my own life, in pursuing a PhD in a STEM field, most often when I meet people and tell them what I do, they immediately comment on how intelligent I must be, and how successful I am, or will be. Perfectly filtered Instagram photos or fancy honorifics tell one story, but the reality is that if you start believing that your success as a human being is tied to those things, life quickly starts going downhill. Success as society defines it offers a rather limited view. I don’t believe that striving to achieve a certain level of material wealth and comfort for yourself and your family is something wrong, and we should all eschew capitalism right this minute, but if you don’t develop your purpose on this earth besides climbing the corporate ladder, you are doing yourself and the people around you a disservice. It’s not about indulging every hedonistic whim. Without hard work, sacrifice, and commitment to something greater than ourselves we wouldn’t be able to fill vitally important roles in our society, and everyone would suffer as a consequence. But if we narrow the definition of success too much, we risk losing a connection not only with our families, friends and communities, but with ourselves. The desire to achieve can become like an addiction, I have felt it firsthand. Walk into any laboratory at a top tier research institution and you will find pale-faced, caffeine addicted zombies who are pulling 12–15 hours days, all to get a degree that may not even guarantee them employment in their chosen field after they graduate. When you neglect the core of who you are, you slowly lose sight of the things that you value, and before you know it, you don’t know why you were pushing yourself so hard in the first place. The tricky thing is fighting off the feeling when someone compliments you for pushing yourself to that place. I have learned that professionally speaking, few people are as dedicated to my well-being as I am. Output is what is important. That is not to say that everyone is heartless, but in the real world people aren’t telling you to stay home when you have the flu and only got two hours of sleep the night before. Or maybe they are, but you don’t believe them, because it has become such a competitive world that it would be foolish to bow out of the rat race, even for one day. Without a strong internal compass, it is easy to get swept into living a less than authentic life, one that doesn’t necessarily align with your values. When success becomes how many hours you sat in the office that day, or how many client accounts you opened that month, you know you are veering off from those internal values. I truly believe that real success cannot be as easily measured by billable hours, promotions, or even how many scientific publications you have. I don’t know if anyone of her 1.3 million followers asks Amber Fillerup Clark how she feels about the whirlwind that is her current life. I hope that among the photo shoots, and Photoshop and diaper changes she is doing ok, and that she feels she will still be fulfilled by her personal relationships even if all of the “success” were to go away tomorrow. Can you say the same?