My definition of success is in constant flux. It demands balance between many (sometimes contradictory) goals, and it is incredibly important to me that I be able to shape, prioritize, and achieve my own goals.
My parents and I do not always agree on the best definition of success. Their definition stems from their own experiences, and it feels like it comes from strictly traditional views. My perspective takes theirs into consideration, along with my own realities, though I have struggled to claim my own definition of success, even if sometimes they impose theirs.
I remember one occasion when they were unhappy with my academic performance.
“How can you get into university with these grades!? Do you want to be successful in life?” My father was furious.
I sat there as my parents criticized me for a 78 on my report card. “Why are they asking me such an obvious question? Everyone wants to be successful. Even animals want to rise to the top of their respective groups.” These were my thoughts as I lowered my head in shame without uttering back a word.
He continued: “without good grades you can’t get into a good university, and if you can’t get into a good university, you can’t get a good job, and if you can’t get a good job you’ll be unsuccessful in life.”
I did not know what to say. As I cowered and backed away, they proceeded to ask the question I most dreaded: “Which university do you want to go to?”
I thought to myself: “Ah, I’ve heard this trick question before. Every answer is wrong. Any school that I choose is either too selective to accept a student with poor marks like me, or too shameful to attend in the first place.”
“Why would you ask a question if you already know how I’m going to respond?” I asked. I tried to be calm, but my frustration inched out as my tone elevated. This was the trigger that invoked more anger from my parents. I knew this was bad news. If I were to reason with them, it would be considered disrespectful. If I attempted to agree with them or thank them, they might see it as sarcasm and disrespect. Even staying quiet, I faced their criticism for not saying anything. All I could do was listen as they yelled away.
I felt as if they were imposing a view distinctly different from my own.
What is success?
As of now, I conceptualize success in terms of the following priorities:
to set and achieve one’s own goals
to earn enough money to support oneself and save
to learn: for personal development & advancement opportunities
to maintain work-life balance
to maintain connection with family and friends
to be passionate about one’s job
to be passionate about one’s hobbies
I wish I could have shared this perspective with my past self. After any argument with my parents, I needed some distance.
As I went to my room and buried my head in my pillow, I thought about this ambiguous term – success. What does it mean? How can I obtain it? Do high grades, top universities, respectable jobs, or huge salaries define success? At that time that was how success was defined in my eyes: a clear reflection of my parents’ perspective.
I enjoyed video games from young age, though my parents disapproved. I viewed gaming as nothing more than a hobby like tennis or piano. Gaming was a type of “yoga” to stimulate and relax my mind. My parents believed that time spent on video games was wasted study time. Occasionally, this was also a source of conflict.
Slamming my laptop in front of me with such force that we both heard it crack, my father gave me an angry stare full of disappointment, bellowing, “I didn’t raise you up so you could waste time on video games. I raised you up so you could become successful in the future.”
I was furious, not because I saw the crack my on my laptop, but because I saw the discrepancy between our perspectives. He believed that every moment should be dedicated to study or to developing demonstrable skills. I believed that all people require some work-life balance. I responded with words of regrettable anger, “Why can’t I do something I enjoy? It’s only a hobby!”
Shocked, my father responded incredulously, “Your so-called hobby can’t get you high grades, admit you into a good university nor will it land you a good job.” There in that prolonged moment, I understood my parents’ definition of success, and I began to understand that it was at odds with my own, at least with some parts of my own.
What is success?
My parents’ priorities have long been different from my own, and this is not to suggest that their definition of success is entirely incorrect. Their concept of success simply relies on different premises. Though I inherited it from them, I began to modify my own definition of success and conceptualize priorities differently because I have observed qualitative differences between societies.
As I went to my room and lay on my bed, I thought more about this term – success. To my parents, money was the most important metric of success. Their ideal comes from a different time and envisions a simplistic progression: grades -> university -> job. I began to understand. I knew it would not be so straightforward to me: my goals would rely on new premises.
They grew up and lived in China for most of their lives: it makes sense that they would expect my life to follow a trajectory similar to their own. After spending two years in China, I came to understand why grades were so highly valued. In Chinese society, I observed a very direct link between academic achievement, university choice, and career opportunity.
My parents learned this definition of success, and it has served them well for their entire life. I have always felt as if I live in a different world. They cannot fully comprehend my experience, just as a man born deaf cannot comprehend the idea of sound, no matter how detailed an explanation he receives. I did not fully experience their type of success, nor do I fully understand their view of society, which makes me realize that my definition of success differs from theirs.
What is success?
I began to concretely answer this question for myself during my late teenage years. I felt true success for the first time when operating a pool as a lifeguard, taking charge.
Swimming has long been one of my favourite hobbies, and through lifeguarding I began to understand what my type of success felt like. During the summer of 2012, when I was 16 years old, I landed a job as a lifeguard without assistance. This was my first consistent job where I worked 8 hours a day. The happiness of getting a phone call informing that I got the job excelled anything I experienced after a perfect test or any appraisal from my parents. This was all me. This was something I did using my own hands. This was my own accomplishment. Every day, no matter how tedious the work that was in stored for me was, I operated a pool as a lifeguard with great happiness and pride. I enjoyed what I did on a daily basis, because it was just like indulging myself in my hobby. I did not do this for my parents, nor did I do it for anyone else. I did this for me. I felt true success for the first time.
What is success?
As I went to my room and sat on my bed, I thought about this slightly clearer term – success. Did I finally find my definition of success? Was it this easy to be successful? No, I have only had a taste of success. But from lifeguarding I found out that my success was related to no one other than me. I was beginning to get there, I almost found my definition.
When I traveled to China to found an original ESL program and Toastmasters club, I felt a new kind of success. This was my first time doing projects of this magnitude. This was not an idea given to me by my parents, but it was an idea transformed into reality due to my immense passion for teaching, my enjoyment of Toastmasters, and my friends’ outstanding teamwork.
Being around friends, having a life that was balanced between fun and work, allowed me to achieve a sense of true happiness and success. I did not want to rely on my parents, even financially, so I opened my own tutoring business part-time where I could teach and also make enough money to sustain myself in China, as I was only living with friends. During this experience, I found independent and team success. I defined success by example.
What is success?
As I stood up from the bed, I reflected on the concept of success, now so clear. I realized that for the past 16 years I was living under the shadow of my parents’ definition of success, because I was missing my own definition. I only worked hard and said things that achieved my parents’ expectations of me for appraisal so I could get some sense of accomplishment.
It seems scary, that if I did not have my own definition of success I would dedicate myself to trying to achieve someone else’s goals that they had set for me. I would be bound by the chains of their expectations and their definitions of success – I would not be free.
While living under my parents’ interpretations, I never found true happiness. But after multiple life changing experiences, I have found it: true happiness and success. I have finally found it.
This is success – my success.