For generations, we’ve believed that success is defined by wealth, power, and status. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary spells it out clearly: success is “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” But is success really about reaching a level of prominence or superiority over everyone else?
Americans aren’t buying it anymore. The majority—sixty percent, across all demographics—now reject that definition of success, according to research by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On top of that, their research found that there is no “average” definition of success—Americans have diverse definitions of success.
“We dream very different dreams today than we did seventy years ago, because we can—and that’s something to celebrate,” says Diane Tavenner in her book Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. “The factory job and home ownership isn’t enough anymore. Now we want work that’s meaningful, so we spend our days doing things that matter to us and that we like. We want to live longer, and to be healthier and more active along the way. We want close relationships with people we care about. We want to be a part of communities with people who understand and accept us. We don’t want to trade off financial stability—no one wants to take a vow of poverty in order to be fulfilled—but we’ve come to think we shouldn’t have to choose, that we should be able to have both.”
There was a time when Americans were willing to set aside their personal aspirations to follow the American Dream: get the house, the job, the car, the marriage, the 2.5 children, and the white picket fence. For many, working for “The Man” meant being secure with a retirement account, social security savings, and enough money to get by. It meant learning a skill and growing with a company throughout your career.
Whether the American Dream has faded or was always a myth, economic opportunity is even less attainable for most Americans, given the widening wealth gap. Plus, people no longer stay with a company for life, and they switch careers much more frequently. In an ever-shifting world, it is difficult to estimate what reality our kids will enter into when they complete their education. It is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist, according to a 2018 jobs report by the World Economic Forum.
Preparing our kids for an unknown future, then, means redefining success. Instead of asking our kids what they want to be when they grow up or coaching them towards specific career paths, we can choose to redefine success in a more personal way that aligns with our kids’ curiosities and interests. After all, employers aren’t looking for specialization anymore; they’re looking for universal, transferable skills.
“Give feedback and guidance rather than answers,” says Tavenner. “Ask questions that help your child reflect on what they want, who they are, what they care about, how they feel, and, ultimately, what they should do as a result. This isn’t about you telling them what to do but about them making authentic choices for themselves.”
“It is far more important that our children understand who they are and understand what matters most and what truly motivates them,” says Rose. “Eventually kids will arrive at a place where they know the kind of career and life they want, but they will have come to that based on their own internal compass rather than what society is telling them they should be, and this will make all the difference in terms of fulfillment.”
Redefine what “success” means to your family
The majority of Americans believe that success doesn’t come at the expense of someone else, according to Rose and Ogas, in Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. Instead, they believe success is aligned with each person’s individual pursuit of fulfillment, independent of what society defines success as. Instead of pursuing excellence, these people believe in pursuing fulfillment. Instead of wealth, power, and status, they care about meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.
This sentiment is echoed in Prepared Parent’s own research, wherein we found that 73% of parents agree that their biggest priority as a parent is for their child to be happy. When asked to break down success, parents placed personal happiness, confidence, and purpose at the top of the list.
“Success” comes in many forms, but it turns out that it all starts with individually defining it. In Dark Horse, Rose and Ogas say the secret to finding true success is to “harness your individuality in the pursuit of fulfillment to achieve excellence.” That’s a mouthful, but what they mean is, you don’t find success by trying to be excellent, or proficient, at some skill or job. You find success by focusing on what matters to you. In a study of “dark horses,” unexpectedly successful people who seemed to come out of nowhere, Ogas found that success was about being true to oneself, not to what society deems appropriate.
“By choosing situations that seemed to offer the best fit for their authentic self, dark horses secured the most effective circumstances for development excellence at their craft, since engaging in fulfilling work maximizes your ability to learn, grow, and perform,” Rose and Ogas write.
So, what does success mean for your family? What do you value most? Take time to discuss success and understand how your family will measure success. Are grades, extracurricular performance, and standardized test scores at the top of the list? Or is it most important for each family member to find purpose and meaning in the things they do every day? If so, how will you determine if each person is on the right path to finding those things?
Some inspiration as you re-evaluate success
As more parents shift their mindset on what success really means to them, they’re finding that success is a lot more than good grades, a good college, and a good job. It’s about raising well-rounded kids that have the skills, confidence, and resilience to find happiness, fulfillment, and solutions to the setbacks that inevitably bubble up.
At Prepared Parents, we are focused on preparing our children, and all children, for the life they want to live—to be the best versions of themselves, to be successful in the fullest way possible—so they can live a fulfilled life. A life filled with financial security, purposeful work, strong relationships, meaningful community, and personal health.
Our definition of success—fulfillment—is based on research conducted by Tom Rath and Jim Hartner at Gallup. In their book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Rath and Hartner discuss five universal, interconnected elements of well-being uncovered by their study of people in more than 150 countries:
- Career well-being: enjoying what you do
- Social well-being: having strong relationships and love in your life
- Financial well-being: effectively managing your economic standing
- Physical well-being: having good health and stamina
- Community well-being: feeling engaged in your local area
Their research found that while 66% of people are doing well in at least one of the five areas of well-being, only 7% of respondents were thriving in all five.
As parents, we have the opportunity to raise our kids to understand that success does not come at the expense of their peers. Success is not a zero-sum game where one kid wins while others lose. In fact, everyone can be successful, especially when we stop looking at success from the conventional lens of following a societally-prescribed path.