I sat on stage during my high school graduation with the other smart kids. I was ranked 4th in my class. I walked off stage after collecting my diploma, and could practically taste my future successes. I got a full scholarship for my undergraduate program, and spent five years alternating between studying chemical engineering, and working a total of five internships. In practice, I disliked chemical engineering. I couldn’t imagine working as an engineer. I minored in math and business to appear more well-rounded when applying for post-graduation jobs unrelated to engineering, and got straight As in both. I networked, although I didn’t see the importance. I was self-assured. I graduated magna cum laude.
My disinterest in engineering as a career was a huge source of anxiety for me. It caused me more stress than getting good grades ever had. I reconsidered my future. I tried to reconcile what I had already accomplished with what I could do next. I thought about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I thought about the relationship between success and happiness, and wondered if I had to sacrifice one for the other. I spent the next year studying analytics, in hopes of pivoting into a career in data science before one in engineering began. I completed another internship. I networked without knowing who I wanted to stand by or become. I was certain this time. I graduated with high honors.
These are not my qualifications. These are not reasons why I deserve a job or success or happiness. These are the facts of how I spent the first half of my twenties. I am not a success based on my accomplishments as they are written. I am still writing.
I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. By ‘family,’ I mean more than my parents and their parents before them. I mean my extended family: my aunts and uncles and older cousins. I mean all of those who came before me, raised me, and helped me define my point of view. I grew up fairly poor (although I won’t claim it was tragically so) as an only child in a blue-collar household. My mother was a stay-at-home, and habitual pot smoker. My father was a blue-collar worker, alcoholic, and heroin addict (sometimes recovering, and sometimes not). Through them I learned the importance of budgeting and hard work, and decided I wanted to live a life where I would not have to budget down to every last dollar. Through them I learned to be content with a little, and a fear of settling for not enough.
This is not a sob story. This is not why I deserve sympathy. These are the facts from my childhood that defined what came afterwards. I am not someone who overcame odds, regardless of numbers or statistics.
My mother didn’t expect me to go to college. This is not because she didn’t think I could, but because she didn’t consider it a necessity in order to live a good life. My mother would love me regardless of who I was, and when she tells me she is proud of me, I believe her. This doesn’t mean she set a low bar.
My mother sat with me to do my homework every night until I was in 4th or 5th grade, and she quizzed me with flashcards before every test until some years after that. She had me rewrite assignments if they were sloppy, and reviewed mistakes I made until I knew better than to make them again. She would tell me, when I came home crying because kids did or said something mean, that it is lonely at the top. In these ways my mother defined my early image of success, even if she would be proud of me regardless of my achievements.
My naive definition of success was a base of academic achievement followed by the climbing of a corporate ladder. It didn’t matter how I grew up, or what those before me did: I always knew I would go to college. However, I struggled with things external to the classes I was taking. I struggled with identity and figuring out what I enjoyed and who I wanted to be. I struggled with potentially making the wrong choices, and dealing with setbacks. I thought I needed early-on certainty to find success, but didn’t know how to craft a project as long-term as life with the idea I held of what it meant to be successful.
The only time I remember struggling in school (prior to grad school) was when there was an assignment based on creativity. I loved reading, writing, and art, but those subjects took the back-burner to math and science since they did not lend themselves as readily to the view of success I had formed in my head. Moreover, creativity is subjective, and I was scared to create anything that highlighted my choices as individual. I was terrified I would get made fun of when there was not an objectively correct answer. Because of this, I (literally and metaphorically) colored inside the lines. The idea of taking a creative risk gave me anxiety, so I chose inaction over possible failure. Instead, I rested on my position as a smart kid who could get good grades. I rested on objectivity.
I have often felt plagued by having too many interests, and not enough time to entertain them as fully as they individually deserve. I have always felt that my creative and logical sides are at war. I may have created this war internally, but others have supported it. Creativity and intelligence are often viewed as separate, but I do not understand why, regardless of how Capital They claim the brain is partitioned. I imagine it would be fulfilling to be in a position that required active use of both sides, but I digress.
School allowed me to dream of a better future for myself. School rewarded my thirst for well-rounded knowledge. When I graduated from my analytics program, I thought I figured out how my interests and abilities could be reconciled with success and happiness in one cohesive future. I saw a long and fulfilling career ahead me. I thought I was ready for it. I thought I had sought-after skills. I found myself viewed by employers as a blank slate with two pretty degrees hanging on my wall in abject symbolism, rather than an asset with a variety of interests.
I had no concept of the length of time a career spans until I entered mine. I work for a startup and analyze healthcare data. I enjoy looking at information. I enjoy analysis and interpretation. I enjoy information communication and visualization. I cannot imagine sustaining the office lifestyle for this long a period of time. I am at the very beginning, and already I do not have the stamina. From what I have seen, office culture crushes creativity, and the only sure route to success, as defined by the majority, is to become more and more cog-shaped and capable of performing just one task.
I do not want to perform just one task. I thought I could make the world a better place by learning how to play by the rules, but now, sometimes, I think I’d rather watch it burn because of those very rules.
I spent six years in higher education, and regret none of them. If I could, I would make a career out of higher education, however, it could only ever be a prohibitively expensive hobby. Not to mention, more education does not necessarily equal higher employability. School is a stepping stone. School teaches information, not skills. School is a prerequisite for learning how to do a job, not preparation to do a job.
So I am working on a new definition of success: one that is based on living a life that is representative of my values, and has an intrinsic link to happiness. I am twenty-five, I have two degrees hanging on my wall, and neither will define my success in the long run: it is going to take more than that. I have a job that is alright for now, and I am trying to figure out what will be more than alright. I have a few ideas: I will let them consume me. I have come a long way: I am becoming the person I want to be. The road has not been straight, and I have went through revisions, but I have not made mistakes.
I imagine my view of success will continue to change over time, and I hope the view, as defined by the majority, adjusts as well. I hope for a future where we are taught to ask ourselves individually: what does success mean to me?