What Is Success?

Posted On: 06.10.13


I am so tired. Recovering from an amazing and exhausting several days that included the Huffington Post’s Third Metric Conference, a Kindergarten party here, and my 10th Law School Reunion. They were days stuffed with friends old and new, wonderful houseguests, deep laughter, late nights and far less sleep than I require. And so. I’m fresh out of words, but wanted to pop in and say hello and leave you with the following piece (below) that I wrote in preparation for last week’s conference. I will be back later this week with some thoughts on the conference itself and to relive the reunion. I’m curious to know how you define success these days?


Success. It’s always something I’ve wanted, and aimed for, and felt. I had the distinct privilege of attending a triumvirate of excellent and exalted schools (The Dalton School here in Manhattan; Yale College; Columbia Law School) and in my mind, I think I always assumed that these schools, and the knowledge and opportunities they afforded me, would ensure a high degree of success. In my mind, my foolish mind, it was a simple scenario of Cause and Effect.

In many regards, I was right. I attended these sparkling schools and I worked very hard and I graduated with good grades. There were wonderful opportunities and I took them. I was thankful for them. But here’s the thing, the thing I am only now realizing in retrospect, many years and three kids later: Schools, however brilliant, grades, however flawless, opportunities, however grand, will not teach you what you want to do in life, what you love.

I learned this first-hand. Ensconced in a fancy law firm office high above this city I love, I began the practice of law. I knew then, and see now, that it was a rarified world, a fast-paced, golden land, and I derived some satisfaction from this. But only some. In a very short period of time, I felt myself dragging in that foreboding existential way characters in good, meaty novels drag, asking myself questions big and gray about presence and purpose and passion. Was this what I loved? Would I ever feel passionate in the walls of this world?

The answer came quickly, and quietly: No.

And so there I was in that place where all my hard work had led and I was just as lost, probably more lost, than ever. My resume twinkled, my paycheck was fat, my parents’ friends were impressed, but I was riddled with uncertainty and insecurity. If this was “success,” I wasn’t sure I liked it.

Almost ten years later, I sit here in my jeans at a city Starbucks. In a few minutes, I will pick up my middle daughter from preschool and then we will take the crosstown bus and attend the Spring Fair at her big sister’s school. But in these remaining minutes, I write words. And this practice has become sacred to me – this writing of words, this thinking of thoughts, this asking of questions tiny and grand. This is my new life, my new world, and it is miles from my law firm life. And I love it.

Today, I feel successful. Not Successful in some Platonic, universal, look-at-me, hear-me-roar sense, but a much softer successful; vibrant, edifying, real. I am doing things I want to do and feel I need to do, things that bring ineffable and immense joy and meaning to my life. As I muddle through the raising of three young girls, my life is literally and metaphorically all over the place; I am forever in physical and philosophical transit, my laptop tucked safely into my messenger bag. I sneak moments and hours to write, and for now, in this stage of my mothering life, progress is slow-going, but real. I feel it with every fiber of my being: I am getting somewhere.

This, for me, is what real success is, and feels like. This inchoate sense of growth, of evolution that is messy and meaningful and good. This phenomenon of feeling purpose and passion. It is not all about schools and resumes and money. These things matter of course, on a very practical level, and on a very profound level sometimes. But they are not everything.

We should never allow them to be everything.

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How would you define success? Has your definition of success changed over time?

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10 Comments for: "What Is Success?"
  1. This is something I think about all the time, something I discuss with a select few, something I wrote an entire (abandoned) memoir about. You and I have in common, I suspect, the orientation towards achievement, the gathering up of glittering degrees. But … also, the realization that those things don’t add up to fulfilled life, or to success that means anything. I’m still figuring out what success means, but one thing I know for sure is it’s not what I thought it was, all those years ago. It isn’t the brass ring. xox

  2. I so appreciate this post as I find I’m at something of a crossroads myself lately… What am I supposed to be when I grow up? Obviously at 35 with two kids and a lot of “real life” behind me, I am certainly not a child anymore – BUT I have done a lot more growing up in the past three and a half years since my son was born and our lives temporarily shattered. I feel like a butterfly emerging from a battered cocoon – looking for the next branch to fly to… I’m just not sure where to go. Where I’m supposed to go from here…

  3. You make some really good points here. I think the best one is that you’ve come to define success for yourself, rather than to let it be defined by others. Because you are living a life that satisfies you, and have chosen a career that stimulates and challenges you, you feel successful. This is an admirable yardstick and one that many of us would do well to adopt.

  4. Emily

    Love this Aidan! I sincerely believe that truly being successful is finding that thing that you love, and doing it your way, no matter what anyone else thinks of it. And that is such a hard thing to do — it takes a lot of courage and a strong sense of self. Not everyone can walk away from an unhappy, but societally successful way of life, and those who do, like you, are such an inspiration! Thanks for sharing this today!

  5. Aidan,

    I wrote about this very same thing on Friday. I am still figuring out my definition of success. Raised in a household where outcomes are a measure of success, I struggle after abandoning my legal career. Like you, it did not fulfill me in ways that I thought it would. As I embrace my writing path, I also struggle. Fear is a main component in this spiral. When you are taught that success is measured by results, pursuing writing leaves you in a free-fall. And that is scary and comforting all at once. I am lucky that I can pursue my writing, but at the same time, I am scared to death that I may never reach my “result.”

  6. Something I’ve been struggling with a bit lately (the original Ivy League insecurities – when you realize that your high school crush just won a Tony, a friend from your freshman theater studies class in college was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and one of the guys from your law school journal just sold his third company in Silicon Valley.) Then I take a deep breath and realized that I’ve never tried to do these things (not that I could up and win a Tony if only a just tried, but that’s not where my interests and talents lie) I have a pretty good life. I mean, I have a hammock in my back yard, and what’s better than that?

  7. You are right success is the evolution that is messy and meaningful and good. This phenomenon of feeling purpose and passion…..well said!

  8. Thanks Aidan. You are writing exactly what I am writing at this time in my life. We are asking the question, what is success. My answer is happiness and doing work you love. Yours is too.

    We come from entirely different backgrounds. I am from a public school in a working class neighborhood outside of Providence, RI. I attended Bentley College and was trained for a job I was entirely unsuited for. I never had the desire to pursue it any further, so I didn’t go on for that “all important” MBA or try to climb the corporate ladder.

    You realized much sooner than I that you needed to change. I muddled through my thirties and forties, jumping from job to job, trying to pay the bills, securing health care for my family. I was often very unhappy and this created problems for my family at various times over the years, but we made it through. Every day I tell my daughters the most important thing in life is to be happy. It is the true measure of success and only you can define happiness. We all have a different definition of happiness.

    Now we are both writing. I enjoy your pieces, their honesty and reflection. As writers, we do need to share a piece of our hearts and souls so people can relate. They can say “I am not alone.” In the end, we only have ourselves to answer to. Did we spend our days well? Were we happy? Did we share our joy with those we love?

    I recently found the author Thomas Beller and his book “How To Be A Man.” It really resonated with me, his journey to becoming a man, a writer and a happy person. I wrote about it on HuffPost, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheila-blanchette/reading-and-writing_b_3378850.html Keep writing and sharing your journey and I will too.

  9. Jennifer Machin

    I don’t really have a comment other than to agree with the others. Knowing what you love, loving something really, seems like success to me. I am not Ivy League educated, far from it, nor am a I a writer, but I love your blog. I can’t wait to read your book. Thank you for sharing your writing with us. I don’t think I know what success is to me – I am a teacher, a mother- but I do know it doesn’t come when I compare my life to others. Good for you for defining your own meaning of success & following it.

  10. Aidan, I found your piece today after posting my own thoughts on success on Coming Up Roses. (http://ericaligenza.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/redefining-success/)
    I figured you would be a blogger with thoughts on the topic – good thoughts! And sure enough!
    It’s so awesome to see how you have reflected on “success” and its meaning to you, especially after having a plethora academic and career-related triumphs, if you will. Maybe if more people thought about things the way you do, happiness and contentment in life and improvement would be more abundant!
    Thanks for your constant honesty and rawness in writing. It’s inspiring.


    My “Success” thoughts are here:

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