Success and the Loving Life

In order to consider teaching our students the importance of building loving, fulfilling lives, I keep coming back to only one solution: we must help them to rewrite their definition of success.

The Oxford Dictionary defines success as the following:

  • The accomplishment of an aim or purpose
  • The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status
  • A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

 I do believe that most children have also internalized this definition of success. It seems that success in the eyes of a teenager has a dollar amount attached to it. I have even heard some students say that even though they would enjoy pursuing a career in education, they do not believe that a teacher is successful because of the salary. Their actions and pursuits indicate that success in life is a measure of financial, individualistic, and materialistic achievements. If we claim to be modeling our lives as Christians, is this the message we should be sending to our children? How do we think Jesus would define a successful life?

When I was a teenager, I must admit that my views of success were not entirely different. I wanted to be wealthy and only considered fields of study that were capable of delivering that result. Chasing that narrow-minded, materialistic ideal, I do believe, greatly contributed to my battle with anxiety and depression. Something in my brain was screaming at me because I was ignoring my gifts, my passions, and my values.

In that respect, how should we define success and how should we better steer our children toward that new enlightened ideal? I have discovered that success, for me, means finding fulfillment in the work that I am doing. When I hear that I am making a difference in the lives of the students I am teaching, that means so much more to me than any salary ever could. I have had the experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry, while earning a high salary with generous benefits and quarterly bonuses, but I was feeling empty and lost and was not being true to myself. I wasn’t helping people. In fact, I often felt I was being asked to do just the opposite to increase the company’s market share, but I was unwilling to continue doing it. I made a career change with a baby at home, and another on the way, and it was the best decision I have ever made. I see, everyday, the difference that I am making with my students. I love going to work everyday, as I am fueling my passions and serving the needs of others more so than my own. I wake up excited to see what each day will bring. I also insist on work life balance and finding time to pursue the hobbies that bring me peace. I say no when I need to and don’t feel guilty, most of the time anyway. I remind myself daily of my priorities and choose to spend my energy on those priorities, and make sure my children see me doing it.

Ultimately, I feel we are robbing our students of the experience of loving their career and personal life by continuing to demonstrate that wealth and achievement are the only definition of a successful life. Is a man successful if he becomes a billionaire by taking advantage of vulnerable or sick people, or if he steps on the less fortunate to get to that position? Is a woman successful if she gives her all to a career, but has no time for her family or an overall well-balanced life, or even sacrifices her health in the process? I want my children to find fulfillment in life, whether through a career they love, through service and charity work, through prioritizing family time, or even through their hobbies and down time. Success to me means finding the activities that fuel your passions and building your life goals around those passions. Success means using your passions and gifts to help others and to contribute to the common good of our society. Success means embracing mistakes and failures and learning from them to grow, to strive for personal growth that is unique to you and your talents and goals. Success is learning when we need to readjust our goals and reevaluating that to which we devote most of our time and energy. Success is knowing when to say no to something that takes energy away from the pursuit of your passions or your sense of peace. Sometimes anxiety is a sign that God is speaking to us, trying to make us listen and hear from Him why we are on this Earth and what good we can do with the gifts we are given. Success is so much more than a salary or a job title.

As parents and educators, we must be better models of this more loving, more community-focused idea of success. Our Christian values lead us to a life in pursuit of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I see no mention of wealth, impressive job title, high grades, or even acceptance to Harvard. When we congratulate our children for a job well done, what are we rewarding? We usually celebrate test scores, report cards, athletic achievement, etc. What if we had more awards ceremonies at our schools that simply recognize service to others? What if we treated our children to a fancy dinner for being kind to a friend or for helping out around the house? What if we simply reconsider the questions we ask our children at the end of their school day? The first thing I ask my children at the end of each school day is; tell me one nice thing you did for someone today, and then I give them an example from my day. I hope this helps to model for them my priorities and values, and helps them see what I love most about them. My goal is to raise strong, kind, compassionate human beings. I think we could use more of those in our world.

So, I am asking for your help in changing the narrow-minded definition of success for our children and modeling it through our own words and actions. If our ultimate goal as parents and teachers is for our children and students to live loving, fulfilling lives, we need to refocus their priorities, and to teach them that money cannot buy a happy life. Work ethic is important, don’t get me wrong, but hard work is meaningless and just plain hard if you are working toward the wrong goal. Make those goals meaningful and loving and fulfilling and we can change the world!!

Do Our Kids Know It’s Okay to Not be Okay?

Last August, I read Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, and was immediately overcome with emotion. Fagan describes Madison Holleran as the All-American teenage girl, the girl every other girl wants to be. Maddy is beautiful and popular, a straight-A student, and a state champion soccer player and track star. She is the epitome of what every teenage girl desires to be. Madison was an active Instagram user, consistently posting photos of her seemingly perfect life. In fact she was so good at portraying herself as the perfect, high-achieving, popular teenager, it seemed her family and her closest friends had no idea just how badly she was struggling. Within months of starting her college career at the University of Pennsylvania, as a Division 1 cross country and track athlete, she walked up the steps of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, and jumped, taking her life at the age of nineteen.

I was haunted by Maddy’s story for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason was that I saw myself at the same age. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I started what would be a 7-year battle with anxiety, depression, and severe anorexia. I had always been a high achieving kid. I was a straight-A student and I excelled athletically, receiving multiple Division 1 scholarships to play softball. However, looking back, I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I hid it well. I did eventually recover, but had spent most of those years wishing I were not alive. I can’t fully explain why my story has a different ending than Maddy’s, but that’s the thing about mental illness. Each story charts its own course.

Maddy’s story also made me think of my students. I teach Chemistry at an all-girls Catholic high school, and many of our students have an intense desire, almost an innate need, to achieve and succeed. Many of our high-achieving students are terrified of making mistakes and failing. A high stress approach to education is the status quo, and a high GPA and acceptance at a top-rated college are the ultimate goals.

My concern is whether or not we are teaching our children the value of learning from mistakes and failure. My most important life lessons were learned from picking myself back up after getting knocked down a few times and coming back even stronger. Life doesn’t always follow that ideal path that we hope for, and it is crucial to know that those plans can be recalibrated and that perhaps a different path in life is, in fact, our destiny, or God’s plan even. Many kids follow a particular path because of appearances and expectations from others. Maddy, for instance, thought her family and friends expected her to attend an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport, but she was miserable and afraid to let anyone down. She spent her energy trying to maintain her image rather than directing her energy to making the necessary changes to get healthy.

How can we let our kids know that it is okay, even important, to fail? How can we make sure that our children know that it is okay to not be okay? We should do a better job of educating children on the signs of anxiety and depression and letting them know that it is okay to ask for help and how to ask for help.

In the age of social media, appearance is everything to kids. Even adults fall victim to comparing our own lives to what we envision others’ lives to be, simply based on what we see and read on Facebook and Instagram. What we see is only the highlights reel and not a true representation of real life. We need to make sure our kids understand this and find ways to be more real with their friends and family. As the adults in their lives, we need to model this and talk to them about it. Otherwise, they will grow up to believe that asking for help when they need it is a sign of weakness and a blemish on that image they have worked so hard to craft. Talk about your bad days. Encourage them to share the good AND the bad. That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us “us”. Perfect is unrealistic and, frankly, pretty boring. Our flaws and quirks and idiosyncrasies make us interesting and relatable.

The feeling that I remember most from my darkest days when I was struggling in my late teens and twenties was feeling completely alone. I thought for sure that no one around me could possibly be feeling so incredibly depressed. I was certain that my peers thought that I was a total freak. What I needed so badly to hear was that others had struggled with depression or anxiety or anorexia, and that it was okay to ask for help and that I could and would get better. I needed to hear that this was not how I would feel for the rest of my life. I think Maddy needed to hear this as well. This is why I make sure to share my story as an adult and let my children and my students know that mental illness is more common than they think and that it is okay to let someone know if they are struggling. The story of Madison Holleran was a wake-up call for me, as a mother and an educator. I will forever carry Maddy’s story in my heart, in the hopes that both of our stories can help those who are struggling to realize that they are not alone, that recovery is possible, and that life after recovery is so incredibly beautiful and worth the fight.