Wisdom//

Gloria Steinem, Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Other Powerful Women on What “Success” Means to Them

There isn’t just one measure of success.

Courtesy of Krista Kennell/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Krista Kennell/Shutterstock

Success is not what you have. It is loving what you do. 

—Claire McCaskill 

One of the most fundamental rights that the feminist movement has fought for is for women to have and make their own choices. Not choices that are dictated to us by societal conditioning or by other people in our lives, but the choices that are right for us. That can often be hard for many women to even discern, since we may have internalized so many other voices that we’ve lost touch with our own. We need to establish an honest relationship with ourselves and prioritize time for reflection, so we truly know what it is that makes us feel happy and fulfilled; what it means to us, personally, to live a meaningful life and pursue our true calling. 

In this day and age, where many of our institutions are being turned upside down and societal assumptions are being questioned, we need to look freshly at what “success” really means to us. The things that are often associated with success in our society—enormous material wealth, fame, recognition, power—are not only unachievable for most of us but also do not necessarily lead to happiness and fulfillment. I have interviewed many wealthy celebrities, from Oprah to Natalie Portman and more, and they often report that their fulfillment doesn’t come from their fame or wealth at all. Instead, it comes from their advocacy work, giving back, and being of service to others. 

I believe we should redefine success as not only what we achieve in our careers but also prioritizing things that help give us a good quality of life—including our health and well-being, our time spent with our families and special people in our community, time to support or advocate for causes we care about, and time for ourselves to rest and reflect. 

We also need to realize that there isn’t just one measure of success—it can mean different things to different people. What does having a successful life mean to you? In the quotes that follow, some of the renowned women I’ve interviewed share their insights on how we can broaden our beliefs about success. 

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There is the obvious power that comes with money or success. But there’s also personal power that comes from someone working hard on his or her own internal process—the kind of power we talk about as “finding your voice.” It requires you to turn within on a daily basis and not leave any leaf unturned as you discover what it really means to be alive. 

—SALLY FIELD 

“We are linked, not ranked” is the paradigm that was the paradigm of societies for most of human history, and still is of some, and that is the circle, not the pyramid. Viewing the world as linked, not ranked, is profoundly different from viewing it in a hierarchical way, which causes you to label everyone with their place in the hierarchy. What we experience in our childhoods that comes to seem normal, or even inevitable, is that if you are placed in a hierarchy, you probably are immediately anxious about going further down, and you’re striving to go further up, so your energies get placed into becoming “more than,” or at least not becoming “less than,” instead of becoming “part of.” 

—GLORIA STEINEM 

There’s a saying and a song that says, “A man can make money, but money cannot make a man,” and there’s so much truth in that. You can make all the money in the world, but if you’re not happy, you’re not a success. So I really measure success in how you deal with the money you make, how you give back. 

—DOLLY PARTON 

Women need to follow their hearts. It’s okay for a woman to lean in. It’s also okay for a woman to lean back, if that’s what she wants. I think women need to follow their hearts and their minds and not conform to social pressures. And I think we also need to be acutely aware of opportunities when they arise and seize them with both hands. 

—ANA NAVARRO 

You already have everything you need to be successful. Though I remember spending a lot of time trying to reach outside of myself in order to acquire things that I thought that I needed, now in hindsight, the things that had made me most successful, the things that are my capital, the things that are my highest value, are things that I had all along. And it’s so ironic, but you’ve already got it. You are everything that you need, as opposed to operating from this feeling of inadequacy, as if we’re not enough. 

—TIFFANY DUFU 

Women have to lead the way in changing how our workplaces are structured and how we define success—both for their sake and for the sake of successful men who desperately need to learn how to lean back. The world desperately needs it. 

Remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. 

—ARIANNA HUFFINGTON 

Excerpted from LEADING THE WAY by Marianne Schnall, published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Marianne Schnall. All rights reserved.

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