Wednesday, July 30

What does "success" look like?

We've heard the phrase "dress for success." We've heard people comment on how someone "looks successful;" perhaps we've said that ourselves. But what exactly does "success" look like? I ask for a number of reasons. First, kids are about to go back to school and we talk a lot about "student success." Second, we seem to believe that academic success translates to college and work place success and, more importantly, that success has a particular look.

I was on the train to downtown Chicago yesterday and looked around just to observe my fellow commuters. Let's face it, I like to watch people and I like to construct stories about them. The clues I have are the way they dress and the ways they behave. The guy across the aisle from me was wearing jeans, a T-shirt (clean, sloppily not-quite-tucked-in), flip flops. He had his messenger bag on his lap and was typing on his laptop. When he wasn't working on his laptop, he was typing on his smartphone.

"What do you do?" I asked. "I'm just curious."

"Tech start-up."

"How's it going?"

Big smile on an otherwise somewhat surly face. "Great! Better than I hoped."

"Do you feel successful?"

Energetic nodding. "Yes. Nearly every day."

Other passengers came on board and his phone buzzed interrupting our conversation. I wanted to know more about the "nearly." I can only speculate.

At another stop a man in a really good-looking suit got on board. Pocket square in his suit coat pocket. Expensive-looking watch. Really nice-looking shoes. Confident air. Only his socks suggested he wasn't quite the buttoned-down executive. I liked that about him. I liked that he looked successful, but that he was also successful in exuding confidence in and comfort with himself.

There two boys sitting in front of me. They were talking about classes and work loads. College kids. They were talking about plans. (You have by now figured out I'm a serial eavesdropper because I'm fascinated by other peoples' stories. Know this if you end up sitting anywhere near me.) They were earnest in their conversation. When they stood up to exit the train, one was dressed somewhat conservatively. Nice jeans, shirt with a buttoned collar, lightweight sweater (it was a really cool day for July so I didn't question it), nice shoes (maybe Steve Madden tie shoes), socks that matched his outfit. The other young man was also wearing jeans, Adidas, a T-shirt with a long-sleeved shirt over it and unbuttoned. More casual and relaxed looking. No less passionate about his future than his friend; no less articulate. Which is the most "successful"?

I'm certainly not the first to write about success, but as I think about the millions of kids preparing to go back to school and the thousands of educators even now preparing their lessons and thinking about this year's group of kids, I think about what "success" means--what it looks like, sounds like, feels like.

Earlier this year writers of Huffington Post asked "What Is Success?" In 2012, Geoffrey James posed the same question suggesting there is a better definition. To put it simply, Mr. James suggested that if you are "happy," you are "successful." Answering the abstract with the abstract is one of my definitions of "frustrating."

There are several TED Talks and videos on success. I've listed some below; the last two are quite long.
John Wooden, "the Wizard of Westwood," defined success as "the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable."

Alain de Botton touches on how we judge one another based on how we dress, how we talk, what schools we attended, and what we do for a living but that we cannot determine our own success based on what others believe constitutes success.

I like Coach Wooden's definition and perspective the best. What teacher and what parent wouldn't be satisfied in knowing that kids are putting forth every effort to do the best they can at whatever they are doing? An employer who learns that an employee is putting forth every ounce of effort to do his or her best and still falling short knows there is a mismatch between the employee and the position. The employee has not necessarily failed and needs to know that.

The man in jeans and flip flops would have said he was putting in the effort to do his best. The man in the suit might have said the same thing, but I know my cultural upbringing tells me to think the guy in the suit is more successful than the guy in jeans and flip flops.

I won't dispute the importance of dressing for success. I would never suggest that someone not do their research for appropriate dress and I think it's always better to be a bit overdressed than underdressed. A savvy interviewer is not going to be swayed by the clothes anyway, but will mark that an applicant took the time to do the research and be respectful. That says something about the character of the individual, too, and that contributes to a level of success.

At the end of the day, then, if students and teachers can answer honestly that they have put forth their best efforts to do the best of which they are capable, then they have reason to feel successful. Because not only might they have done superbly well in one or more things, but they will have discovered some of their limits in others and now have the insight to determine how to balance or mitigate those shortcomings. And that, too, is success.

P.S. Just for the record, that makes me think of Angela Maiers and her mission to remind us that we all matter, that we can #Choose2Matter.

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