Why some people feel successful, and others… don’t
In the last year, I’ve talked to a lot of people about their relationships with success, and in those conversations I realized that most people don’t think they are successful. When I asked I get a lot of “not yet’s” and some “moderately’s” but the whole-hearted “yes’s” were few and far between.
In this article, I’ll be looking at what exactly makes some people able to feel successful now, and makes others convinced that it’s something they’ll only achieve at some point in the future.
First of all, there’s a core element to this exploration which I explain in great detail in another article but if you’re in a hurry here’s the summary:
There are 2 types of relationships with success, a “what” type and a “how” type.
The folks with a “what” type definition, see success as something concrete that can be achieved or acquired. They tend to say things like ”I’ll be successful when I land that job, when I own my own house, when I get tenure or when I get married.” These folks self-reported less happiness, but more importantly when I asked them if they thought they were successful people, they all answered some version of “not yet.” They tend to be overly focused on goals, checklists, the next rung on the ladder — and more often than not, when they reach that rung, rather than allowing themselves to bask in feelings of success, they find themselves saying “what’s next.”
People with a “how” type definition see success as a way of being. They say things like “I’m successful when I’m learning, when I’m pushing myself or when I’m providing for my family.” The people who had a “how” definition at the time I spoke to them, also self-reported that they were happier, more fulfilled and that they consider themselves to be successful people. They were less concerned with the milestones and trappings of success, and more focused on who they were as people. Which isn’t to say they didn’t have objective successes, just that their focus was on who they were being rather than what they were doing.
After seeing these two distinct groups, the first thing I wanted to know was, were there other differences between the “hows” and the “whats?” And if there are, is that something that can be used to help people who want to shift their “what” mentality into more of a “how” type mindset.
In my last article I introduced you to Rebecca and Michael*. At the time I spoke to her, Rebecca had a pure “what” mentality defining success as “being able to provide for myself… to plan for rainy days… to own my own home”. Michael, on the other hand, had a strong “how” mentality describing success as “not striving to be perfect, but striving to be polished… I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not where I used to be.” These two are pretty good examples of the how and what groups, so let’s look a little more at what makes them different.
Both Rebecca and Michael had difficult childhoods. Both were given the message, by the world and their families, that the world wasn’t a safe place.
Rebecca’s childhood started out affluent, but then things shifted. “My dad was a doctor… I remember going to his practice and helping out with fake legs and arms because he was orthosis and prosthesis. But when I was 9 or 10, his partner ended up taking everything he had. And he went belly up and started drinking very heavily, to the point where even my mom said he was completely unrecognizable.”
Rebecca’s mother also had her own challenges, having “broken her neck when she was 13. She was told she was never going to walk again and by the age of 15 she was up and walking.” However, later “a doctor completely botched a back surgery for her… re-broke her neck and didn’t tell her until nine weeks later. She’s been dealt a really crap hand for lack of better words.”
Michael’s childhood in Chicago’s Englewood was difficult in a different way. “The house that I grew up in was very dysfunctional, and it’s still pretty dysfunctional to this day, to be honest… I grew up in a four-bedroom house with 9 people. My maternal grandparents, my mother, three sisters, and older cousins and uncles who suffered from alcoholism and schizophrenia… I grew up in poverty, there were times when I would go without eating. There were times when my mom couldn’t afford to do certain things for us on her teacher’s salary.”
Michael shared a memory of a message his mother gave him about the world… “ there were times when we would be waiting for the bus to go to school and work, my mom would notice I had toothpaste on my face. So she would say ‘give me spit.’ And I’m like ‘ew, no’ and she’s like, ‘either you give me yours or I use mine.’ She wanted to make sure the world didn’t have a reason to single us out … my mom felt that if I was tailored at all times, if my appearance was immaculate that would minimize the chances of me getting more grief or facing more adversity than what I’m already promised as a man of color.”
As Rebecca got older, she struggled in college. “There was a lot of stuff going on with my dad, a lot of stuff going on with my mom. My grandmother was really sick and … just everything with my family. It was just kind of going [mimes explosion]. My mind was not at school and therefore … my grades did not go well.” Eventually she dropped out, which was a big blow. Her family, her mother especially, put a lot of stake in college. Rebecca then moved to North Carolina to pursue her now ex-husband, who was emotionally, verbally and physically abusive until she found the financial where-with-all to leave.
After moving back to North Dakota, Rebecca experienced her most successful period, which she ranked as a six or seven out of ten (ten being most successful). “I was able to provide for myself… I was able to plan for rainy days, I had my savings account, I was happy with myself. I was content being single. I didn’t need anyone, I had my dog and I had myself and I was content. I was able to be who I wanted to be and I didn’t have to be mindful of others, or what they expected of me. I was just able to be my own little island.”
This response, the idea of being completely self-sufficient, of not relying on anyone or having anyone rely on you, is common to those who do not trust the world (Vitelli, 2013). Rebecca recognized that this was her mother’s mindset, too — a mindset her mother solidified when she tried to divorce Rebecca’s father, but realized that she would be paying him for the rest of his life, because of the assets she had.
While Michael had been given a similar message about the world being dangerous, it had been mitigated by some very strong other influences — his strong relationships and the security they gave him.
Michael has a strong faith. According to ten Kate, de Koster and van der Waal (2017), religious individuals adjust more easily to major life events, and have a more stable view of the world. They have a sense of security and safety: that ‘all goes well,’ or at least will be well in the future.”
In addition to the support he gained from his relationship with God, he also had two women who were his constant cheerleaders; his mother and his great grandmother. He shared a story about when, as a kindergartener, he was struggling to learn to write the letter “e.” “I finally wrote the perfect letter “e” and I brought it home so proud, and my mom cried because she knew how important it was to me.”
“My great grandmother was [my cheerleader] as well. A woman with only a 6th grade education, to us, as smart as a whistle. She always had awesome words of encouragement and wisdom. My grandmother taught me to just be myself, authentically… to not feel the need to change myself to fit in or to feel less than because someone may have a different upbringing, or may have a little bit more than what I have… just to be comfortable in who I am, because who I am and what I have is enough.”
Thanks to these supportive influences, even in extremely tense or difficult situations, Michael still had an underlying confidence that what made him, him was not at risk. His core-self was safe. If he failed, whatever, he’d pick himself up and dust himself off.
“I’ve come to learn that I am not a reflection of my failure or my mistakes… if I did my best and it still didn’t work, then I’m comfortable with that… I’ve just learned 10,000 ways not to do something.”
But when I asked Rebecca how she would handle a failure, she replied “it would be a very dark time for me as a person, I would be very worried about my own well-being. I would perceive myself as a person… that I was worthless, that ‘I couldn’t even do that’.”
Interestingly, researchers who study the effects of Katrina on survivors found something similar. They noted that 12 years after the hurricane survivor paths clearly diverged. Those who had “psychological strength” (which included religiosity and the perceived ability to adapt to stressors) were most likely to have a strong recovery. In addition to mental and physical health, they found that economic stability, stable housing and “social role adaptation,” or how people fit into their community were also predictors of how resilient survivors would be — basically the more supported people were, the more clear they were on their role in their world, the faster and more completely they bounced back (Servick, 2018).
This was a clear difference I saw between the two interview groups. While everyone had life stressors (Holmes and Rahe, 1967), those who ALSO had support systems like financial support, a strong faith, strong family relationships or a clear role in their community, were the ones who had this kinder “how” type definition of success. They were able to see failure as a learning opportunity, rather than as a death of some part of themselves… and so success was less fraught.
For instance, Jessica Miller*, a 30 year old, white woman in a committed relationship working on her Doctorate while living in Arizona. Jessica who grew up in a very stable home, she continues to enjoy closer relationships with her family, and even runs a business with her sister. She also has a very clear role in her community, both in her professional position at the University, and in her extra curricular activities, as president of the Rotary club. “My mom has been dealing with cancer for eight years on and off. Seeing a parent go through something like that… you just realize how unpredictable life is. So I always circle back to the question of ‘why not’ so when it comes to those success and achievement things I think ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen? Really… what, my pride gets bruised for a little bit?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jessica is another poster child for the “how” group, saying that at the end of her life, she’ll know she’s been successful if she can say “that I had fun. And I never stopped exploring … I want to enjoy what I’m doing and never stop learning.” She also scored herself a high 6.5/7 on the happiness scale (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999) and fully considers herself to be a successful person.
Interestingly, the “what” type definitions often seemed very similar to the definitions of success they’d picked up in childhood, from their parents or their communities… which across the board, tended to focus on safety and financial independence.
Alexandra Jenkins*, a single 24 year old African American woman from Chicago said her aunt’s idea of success was being “mega-rich.” “She has this saying, “play to win at all costs’. Life is hard and fast and you need to be successful, you need to get money and stuff the best way that you can.”
Those who experienced stress without support stayed focused on a safety-centered definition of success — which makes a ton of sense, these are people who are constantly getting the message that the world will hurt them, and that there’s no one they can rely on. Those who experienced stressors with support, evolve their definition towards something more tailored to them, their lives, their values and their passions — their world message is more: ‘hey the world might be unsafe, but you’re safe here AND you are capable of changing things.’
For an illustration of this, let’s look at 36 year-old Amanda Olson*, a Caucasian, married mother-of-1, living and working in LA. “My parents lived in a teepee before I was born.” They rejected capitalism in a big way, “my father has lived below the poverty line my entire life… and he still does to this day.” But Amanda had also lived with her grandparents for much of her childhood, so she had seen the comfort that came from a different kind of lifestyle. “My grandparents had very much like the perfect suburban house. I grew up in their lovely suburban home that was created with their wealth.”
As a young woman, Amanda reacted to her parent’s lack of security, and her grandparent’s emphasis of it. “I wanted a lot of that stuff when I was young, I wanted the big house, I wanted luxury… as a young adult, that would be a definition of success for me… stability. And I got married younger than, almost all of my friends… I got married at 23. Of course that had a lot to do with loving my husband, but a lot of people love people at 23 and don’t marry them. I think it had a lot to do with wanting to feel safe, it was a big part of what I thought it meant to be an adult. And also having a child, what’s safer than being a stay-at-home mom with a supportive husband, you know?” But with over a decade of a strong marriage and financial stability under her belt, Amanda noticed that her definitions of success were really changing. “Now I see success so much more as personal fulfillment. There’s a personal aspect that got lost because I made those choices so young.” Amanda still in the process of shifting her definition of success, but once she had achieved stability and security, she had the space to refine her what it meant for her to be a successful person in the world.
To boil it all down, looking at all my conversations, it seems like this is what happens:
If a person has a stressful life event WITHOUT support, they double down on the definition of success they currently hold.
If a person has a stressful life event WITH support, they use it as an opportunity to shift their definition of themselves, and of what it means to be successful in the world.
So IF that’s true what could it mean? How could a person take advantage of it in order to shift their own mindset towards the kinder “how” type? I’ll explore these questions in my next article.
*All names are all pseudonyms to protect the privacy of these people who so kindly, generously and vulnerably shared parts of their journey with us. Other highly identifying details have also been changed, photos are stock photography.
Here are links to all the published articles in this series:
Holmes TH, Rahe RH. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. J Psychosom Res 1967;11:213–218.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: Preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46, 137–155. The original publication is available at www.springerlink.com.
Servick, Kelly, et al. “More than 12 Years after Hurricane Katrina, Scientists Are Learning What Makes Some Survivors More Resilient than Others.” Science, 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/more-12-years-after-hurricane-katrina-scientists-are-learning-what-makes-some-survivors.
Ten Kate, Josje, et al. “The Effect of Religiosity on Life Satisfaction in a Secularized Context: Assessing the Relevance of Believing and Belonging.” Review of Religious Research, Springer US, 17 Jan. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5487934/.
Vitelli, Romeo. “When the Trauma Doesn’t End.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 29 May 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201305/when-the-trauma-doesnt-end