Throughout my life, I’ve usually heard the word “success” applied to people who have good jobs, houses, assets, and kids. This is our western ideal. This is what we say to ourselves when we think about our self-worth: “Well, I’m proud of my kids, my house, the money I make, the work I do. I’m a successful productive adult.”
I’m trying to figure out what that means for me, specifically. I don’t have a job, a house, or kids. It seems pretty unlikely that I will have any of these things any time soon or ever. How do I measure my own success when I have none of the attributes society deems successful?
Sometimes I mention this to societally deemed successful people, and they shoo my words away like a buzzy house fly. “Oh well, that doesn’t matter,” they’ll say, “I think you put that pressure on yourself. No one thinks worse of you because you don’t have those things, you just decide they do.”
Really? Because every day, I’m bombarded with messages that unemployed people don’t “contribute” to society. I’m told that I will never know a very special, transcendent kind of love if I don’t have a child. It’s fine for you to rent, people say, but I’m glad I can finally do what I want with my space now that I have a house.
What if these societally deemed successful people didn’t have their societally deemed successful authority to fall back on when they tell me not to worry about my unsuccess? It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter when you have the thing that everyone thinks matters. Being dismissive from a place of financial comfort and with the luxury of privilege and assets does nothing to reassure me of what I’m worth.
My challenge, somehow, is to find my worth in other ways and communicate it outwardly. I know, somewhere inside me, that I am worthy of stability, security, peace. Despite what I don’t contribute to society in traditional ways, I am still worth something intrinsically. My value still exists, regardless of my output.
Over the past year, I have put a conscious, consistent effort into not asking people about their work or status at parties. I’ve tried to change “what do you do?” into “what do you love?” or “what inspires you?” or “what are you excited about?” I’ve tried to meet strangers as individuals, not people who work for a company or exist in a particular partnership. I am shifting my thinking to operate under the knowledge that every person has value and success, regardless of what they “do” or “have.”
What gives you self-worth besides societally deemed success? What would you like a stranger to ask you about?