A handful of years ago, I went on a business trip to Italy with my husband. It was an amazing opportunity, but in the days and weeks leading up to the trip, I became in terrified that people would ask me, “what do you do?” and I wouldn’t have an answer. I didn’t have a fancy job title or a big salary. I stayed home with my kids and did freelance writing jobs while they napped or went to kindergarten.
I had jumped off the Big Law career track years earlier, and even though I was genuinely happy with my decision, I was also very insecure about it. Honestly, I still am sometimes.
The world we live in thrives on bigger and better. Bigger salary. Better job title. Bigger house. Better car. Bigger salary. Better job title. And on and on until we burn out, break down, or get off the hamster wheel.
I got off the hamster wheel decades ago, but I still fight these feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-worth. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
A viral meme addresses this effed up focus on what we do rather than who we are, on how much money we make rather than how much we enjoy life.
Although physical and mental health shouldn’t necessarily be a measure of success, the meme does raise interesting points about what we value and deem important in our culture.
I’ll be blunt. We live in a culture that thrives on toxic capitalism. That’s right, toxic capitalism. In the U.S., capitalism is considered to be as American as apple pie. At least I used to think so. After all, that’s the message we’re fed since we’re little kids. “Success” means climbing the ladder – more money, a better job, more stuff. Right?
In my early 20s, I started to call bullshit on this upward trajectory that we are fed from all corners of our lives. I left a well-paid job as an attorney in Big Law for a job that paid literally half what I was making. Over the next 15+ years, my career has taken many dips and turns, and side routes, and I’ve been good with that. For the most part.
Because even though I know in my heart that bigger-better-more isn’t the key to happiness, something in my body and my inner psyche sometimes asks, is it? I intentionally eschew the “capitalist” lifestyle. My husband and I choose to spend our money traveling and donating to causes we believe in rather than buying more “stuff.” We live in a small house and share one car between the two of us because we want to minimize the “things” in our lives. I feel comfortable with the choices we’re making and the life we’re living.
But still, sometimes I find myself feeling a little… I don’t know, less than. Especially when I’m surrounded by people who focus on earning more, climbing the ladder, and playing “the game” – a game we all know is rigged anyway. I am sometimes consumed with wondering what might have been if I had continued with the trajectory of professional success we’re told to want, instead of jumping off that train for a lifestyle that I actually wanted. I wonder if I should just work harder or be more ambitious. Would I be more respected, more worthy, more important?
Eff that noise.
I’ll be honest, I struggle with these feelings. A lot. I write this as much as a reminder to myself as a message to the masses of other people out there who struggle with the same feelings of inadequacy because your lifestyle choices don’t align with the lie we’ve been told since we were born – namely, that our success is measured by anything other than our own happiness.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take pride in our professional accomplishments. But they are just a part of who we are and what it means to live a “successful” life. I’m also not suggesting that we all become hedonists. On the contrary, I firmly believe that we all have a responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. But that does not mean making more money and climbing the corporate ladder. That does not mean having boardrooms named after you or documentaries made about your empire. It means feeding your soul, sharing your spark, and resting in your own contentment for a while.
This is easier said than done, of course. I’ve spent hours and hours in therapy working my way through these issues. I’ve cried and spiraled into a pit of insecurities because my salary wasn’t as much as someone else’s or because my job title of freelancer isn’t a prestigious as someone else’s.
But deep down, I know the truth; I just forget it sometimes. And the truth is this: success isn’t defined solely by the nameplate outside your door or the numbers on your pay stub.
Perhaps success – to the extent it can even be defined or measured at all – is best summed up by Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
We’ve got to stop tying our self-worth to our salary or job title. I certainly do, and you might too. But how?
Well, I’ll be honest, I’m still figuring that out myself. I wish there were a magic pill, but there’s not. I think it takes intentionally surrounding yourself with people who share your values, who make you feel good about yourself, who you have things in common with that aren’t work related. I think it takes reminding yourself that just because climbing the ladder is what others what, it doesn’t have to be what you want. As Amy Poehler said, “Good for you, not for me.” And I think it takes acknowledging that eschewing the capitalist measure of success that relies solely on salary and job title is radical and counter-culture, and that deciding to fight this paradigm is, in itself, a bit of a success.