Picture for me a young, naïve, optimistic man. The young man walks into his first college class. Nervous, anxious, enthralled, overeager, he sits down in the first two rows. He has been thinking of this day for years now; he has heard the stories, understands the importance, and knows he is taking one of the final steps toward adulthood.
As he waits, he daydreams: not of the friends he will make, or the memories to create, but of a career beginning, the locales to travel, the wealth to create, but most of all, of success. How is he going to do it?
Not important, he thinks to himself. All he knows is that he will make it happen. Besides, who doesn’t change their mind at nineteen? “I have plenty of time,” he reassures himself. Concrete goals? Who needs them, he proclaims! Although the end of his journey is four years away, the young man thinks to himself that it couldn’t seem farther away.
He thinks of the time he has to grow, to achieve, to finally have an answer to the questions everyone asks of him. What major will you pick? What do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to work? They never end. He plans to have an answer.
Our young man has completed his first year, and as it comes to a close, as he ponders the future, strange feelings come over him. Troubling feelings. Doubt. Fear. Confusion. What does he actually want to do? Does he even know? Does anybody know? How can he decide his whole future as a twenty year-old?
He has no answers, and for the first time in his life, he is worried, about himself and the future success he has planned. Maybe he doesn’t have the answers. Maybe there isn’t enough time. Maybe.
Our young man finishes his second year. Another year, another change of major. His friends all have decided on their futures; he tries not to think about his. His classmates talk of internships, networking, and opportunities; he shies away from discussing them.
He picked a “safe” major, after changing his mind so many times. He initially liked it, yet can’t get away from this sinking feeling that it was wrong again, that he yet again will have to start over.
Everywhere he goes, he sees people dreaming of success, talking about success, telling him how to achieve success, planning on how they will achieve success themselves. He wonders how they know exactly how to just go after it.
How can you achieve your dreams, work for them, when you don’t even know what those dreams are? How do you move ahead in life when you can’t figure out where you want to move ahead to?
Every time he thinks he figures it out, he finds out otherwise: no, he really wasn’t that passionate about business, or maybe he isn’t too great in the sciences, or that pursuing a career in writing isn’t the smartest, safest idea right now. And as each passing day goes by, the young man’s apprehension strengthens.
The years have flown by. It is now the last official class of the young man’s college career. It is a capstone course, and as their final assignment, they are tasked with writing a short speech to their fellow classmates about what they have learned, what they plan to achieve, and what they want their fellow classmates to know as they plan to move on in the world.
The young man walks in, and sits towards the back. His classmates, those he has seen but hardly know, go up and speak. They talk of success, and making it, and what their plans are, and their passions. They give motivational quotes, speeches, and thoughts about following your dreams, reaching the top.
They speak, but our young man can hardly relate. After all that worrying, moping, shying away from the future, he doesn’t really have any plans. He has opportunities, but they’re hardly his dream, or even some of his top choices. He doesn’t even know what his dreams are; if he’s being serious with himself, it is to be a professional athlete, hardly possible now!
Gone are the times where everyone is floundering like him. Sure, he had a great time in school; he has a girlfriend, lots of friends, a great education, fabulous mentors.
That girlfriend, though? She knows what she is doing after college; she has a plan. His friends? All have jobs in fields they care about and are passionate for. His mentors? They’ve moved on.
They all speak of success and money and happiness like they know it’s guaranteed, and as he hears them, he is reminded of a younger version of himself, one that was full of questions, but knew, unequivocally, that the answers would all be coming; a version of himself that was sure of the future outcomes, positive he would make it in the world, anxious to begin his life.
He sits there, barely listening to his classmate’s advice, and he asks himself one simple question, one that will change his life: What is success? How is it defined? And as he thought, he had an epiphany, a thought that had escaped him his whole college life but was finally hitting him at the right time.
He was lost in his thoughts now, seeing his world in a whole new light, fully sure of what he was going to say to his fellow classmates. The professor calls his name, and he darts to the front of the classroom, looking at the sea of ambitious classmates who see him as that quiet guy that doesn’t quite seem like he cares enough to try.
He stands at the podium, no notes, no preparation, and gives his short speech to his classmates.
“After all of this time, all of these experiences, I can admit that I seem lost, have uncertain goals, and am not sure of myself, and I would tell you I agree with all of those observations until today. You see, I finally figured out what really matters to me in life.
Success is the word I hear more than any other that confuses me. It seems that we all strive to achieve success in life by working hard and being happy. But what does that word mean to ME? I never understood that until now.
I thought success was defined, that only a few could achieve true success. With this meaning, I was doomed to fail. I didn’t want exactly what those “successful” people wanted. I don’t want to climb to the top, make my work my whole life, climb the corporate ladder. That isn’t me. And until now, I didn’t think that was alright, because that is success.
But now, I know that is wrong. My success is defined by me, and me alone. I decide whether or not I am successful. My career, my life, my passions, are what defines me as a human, and my happiness level. For me, being happy, being satisfied, having fun, is what defines success.
And if that is different than someone else’s version of success, so be it. But I refuse to believe that anyone else’s view of my life and my choices defines my level of success, and neither should you.
As I was preparing this speech, I asked myself one simple question that defines my time here, one that I have no answer to. And this question, this simple question, is all I need to know my plans to achieve my goals that I have worried so much about for so many years.
As he asks the question, he walks back to his desk. Most of the students in the class look at him the same; they guessed that he wasn’t driven, knew he was different. As the professor dismisses the class, the young man, no longer naïve, no longer anxious, no longer drowning in self-doubt, walks out, ready to face the uncertain world, knowing that he is, at long last, prepared.
I wrote this story to remind people that they are not alone in their doubts. Everywhere you turn, there are stories of amazing people with incredible gifts, talents, and drive, who never stop until they reach the top. But, I’m here to tell you that there are people who don’t know their own goals, their own dreams, and can’t describe what they want the rest of their lives to be just yet.
I struggle with these self-doubts all the time, and when I get down on myself, or nervous, or unsure, I remember these thoughts; that I know my own definition of accomplishment, happiness, and satisfaction, and armed with this knowledge, I can go and be successful in my life, in my own eyes.
Because that, in the end, is what matters to me.