What ‘successful’ people do

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Me, enjoying The Great Outdoors, before the EPA and U.S. environmental regulations are fully done away with and the beauty of nature is destroyed (Photo credit: Ian Engel)

As I noted in a piece a couple of weeks ago, this post has been dwelling in my drafted email folder for quite some time. Whenever I considered publishing it, I found an excuse not to — I’m too busy with work; it’s missing something; do I really believe in what I’m writing?

There’s no denying I tend to seek out challenging — and thus often stressful — opportunities. I crave personal progress and whenever possible I give most of my energy to professional projects. When I did the final revision of this piece, I took on someone else’s full-time publicity job (she went to Thailand, and yes, I’m eternally envious) while also freelance fact-checking and working my part-time job. Some nights, I slept 3 hours; some meals, I skipped simply because I couldn’t stop working. I try to be an advocate for wellness, but exemplifying that — especially in my line of work, media — is tricky. But as I struggled to regulate my sleep and eat nutritious meals, I found myself thinking about what it means to be successful, and I returned to this drafted essay…

***
Forbes piece appeared in my Facebook feed last spring. At the time, I was working about 65 hours a week — half at a lefty national magazine; half at a luxury fitness club. I would roll out of bed at 4:30 AM to drag my sleepy self five blocks to the gym. Five hours later I’d speed walk back to my apartment with exactly 15 minutes to change, pack lunch, and brew a second cup of coffee. For five months, I hardly slept or socialized, and my body shut down. For weeks I battled sicknesses that built upon each other, until I found myself curled up in a Midtown CityMD waiting room, unable to work and in need of an antibiotic. I considered leaving the city when my lease ended last August. I spent much of my summer browsing housing sites. Twice, I had apartments fall through just as I was about to fork over hundreds of dollars for deposits. I finally found myself a new home — a spacious Crown Heights apartment with two wonderful roommates. I couldn’t be more grateful for the changes the late summer brought: a new apartment, a new job, fewer hours at the fitness club, and just a bit more time to socialize (read: sleep).
Although my new schedule allows more freedom, I keep coming back to the Forbes piece. I read “How Successful People Spend Their Weekends” on a Sunday night. At first glance, I was very excited; I figured it would offer some Thrive–esque advice about time, stress and/or money management. It didn’t necessary fail to do that, but I found myself repelled by its assumptions. I was drawn in by “successful” in the headline. Success is a concept I’ve been seriously grappling with for the past few years. But as I read through the Forbes cheat sheet for how to make better use of my weekend time and model myself after “successful” individuals, I grew frustrated because it didn’t apply to me or many people I know.
Some samples of my reactions:

#2 They Designate Mornings as Me Time. 
That sounds lovely, and since I stopped opening the fitness club, I’ve tried to do that more. Still, sometimes I have to send emails, make calls or run errands, because it’s the only time I can. But when I first read this piece, I was already rising before the sun. To have “me time” in the morning, I would’ve had to wake up between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. I was working so much to pay rent — and yet I couldn’t help but wonder, “Does working insane hours to pay my bills on time make me ‘unsuccessful’?” The folks at Forbes probably think so… but I saw it as responsible. I’d rather work extra hours than get evicted, acquire a ton of credit card debt, or have to call home to beg a parent for extra cash.

#4 They Pursue a Passion.
 I agree that “indulging your passions is a great way to escape stress and to open your mind to new ways of thinking.” It’s a key reason I try to work jobs about which I’m passionate during the week. On weekends, I clock in at the fitness club by 7:30 AM, and those shifts on Saturdays and Sundays allow me to maintain my membership, so I can work on weightlifting and attend yoga classes. The gym job is far from a dream position, but it allows me to pursue my passion for fitness, as well as stay healthy enough to spend weekdays on my primary passion: journalism. It’s fundamental to personal development to pursue passions, but if we designate only the weekends for our passion projects, it seems likely we’ll end up miserable the other five days of the week.

#6 They Minimize Chores. 
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I really hate household chores — but I must also confess to being a stress-cleaner who derives satisfaction from scrubbing floors and disinfecting all surfaces in sight. My journalism job (or “jobs,” since my main gig is freelance and I often work for multiple outlets simultaneously) can keep me at the office late. The hours are unpredictable and when I add that to my attempt to exercise regularly, I don’t spend much time at my apartment. I can occasionally squeeze in some late-night laundry, or vacuum on an afternoon off, but I tend to dedicate one of my weekend afternoons to cleaning, because I like the tidy space and that’s when I have the time.

I am only 23 years old; I have many, many more years in the work force, and I plan to continue working jobs about which I’m passionate. I still struggle with whether I’d call myself “successful,” but I care deeply about the work I do and try to make sure each task aligns with my career goals and personal values. The Forbes list reads to me like advice for people who hate their day-jobs and only tend to their passions (and mental states) on the weekends…but rather than success, I see that as failure. Success should mean pursuing your passions (and finding a way to make a livable profit from that), rather than putting off passions until the two days per week a ‘successful’ person does ‘me time.’ Sure, sometimes I go weeks without a full day off…but when you (mostly) enjoy and believe in what you do for money, you don’t have to reserve your weekends to recover from your miserable day-to-day life. You end up living for more than the weekends; you end up living for every day you get to wake up and take on your next challenge.

(NB: I would like to note that my ability — especially at my age — to pursue a career about which I am passionate has been made possible in part by my white privilege + middle-class suburban upbringing, and the educational and networking opportunities provided to me because of that…in addition to a lot of all-nighters, many missed meals and excessively high stress levels.)

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My struggle to define success

Burnt pastries

While trying to feed myself a subpar dinner, I almost burned down my apartment building.

For months, I have been revisiting the same nearly complete blog post. It resides in my email draft folder—waiting, lurking. Every time I consider publishing it, I stop myself. 

Its topic: Success.

Part of me is turned off by the idea of success—if I consider myself “successful,” won’t I just become complacent?

Part of me is lured in by it—if I consider myself “successful,” won’t that be an indication that I feel fulfilled by my daily life?

I don’t think this internal dichotomy is uncommon, especially among 20-somethings…or dare I even write the dreaded term millennials…but in my day-to-day I don’t often encounter in-depth discussions focused on defining success and analyzing how it pertains our decisions.

My unpublished piece is a critique of a popular news outlet’s BuzzFeed-style listicle about how “successful” people spend their weekends. The listicle’s main premise is that weekends should be reserved for “me time” and passion projects. My argument against that is essentially that success shouldn’t mean doing something you hate every weekday so you can spend the weekends doing what you love (which describes the vibe I got from the listicle); rather, I claim success should mean taking care of yourself and doing something you love every day, and finding a way to live off of that.

And I know, that’s extraordinarily easy to say and immensely more difficult to practice. What’s held me back from hitting that daunting publish button is doubt in my own argument and whether I’m actually practicing what I preach (don’t hate me for this cliché; it’s just too fitting to resist). 

As I type this from the heart of Midtown, guzzling endless cups of tea and coffee to keep my sleep-deprived brain marginally more functional, I ponder my definition and whether my life reflects it. I have spent the last week temporarily doing someone else’s full-time job, while freelancing during mornings and evenings, and working part-time on the weekend (gotta love the Brooklynite’s freelance hustle). 

“Me time” has meant me knocking out from exhaustion in the early hours of the morning, clutching pints of Halo Top or cups of Yogi tea that by some miracle haven’t yet spilled on my laptop (plus facilitating the rescue of a 35-pound raccoon from an eight-foot barbed wire fence and almost burning down my apartment—see photo above—but those are stories for another time). 

As I contemplate my upcoming career and location decisions, I wonder what will be required of me to pursue my passions. I wonder whether I truly want to solidify my currently dubious definition of success, or just keep chasing it; I wonder whether concretely defining success for myself will actually guide me to becoming successful by my own measure; I wonder whether continuous personal growth requires us to allow our individual definitions of success to constantly evolve, and if so, how to navigate that.

With this unsettled definition to consider (not to mention all my swirling thoughts about where I want to live and work), I struggle to determine whether my daily choices are truly enhancing my skills and aligning with my career goals—i.e. paving a path to success.

So, I put these questions to you, internet dwellers:

1. How do you define success?

2. How does passion interact with your definition of success?