Redefining “Success”

When did the sandbox get so small?

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Your life is more than a checklist.

Steps to Success (as taught to me from K-12):

  1. Graduate high school with the highest GPA you can achieve and as many accolades for sports, leadership, clubs, etc that you can accumulate.
  2. Go the the highest ranking university that you got accepted to, in the most challenging/prestigious field that you showed aptitude for and have some sort of interest in.
  3. Graduate with the highest degree and highest grade average, honors, that you can.
  4. Get a job (one of a finite type of jobs depending on your chosen field) and climb your way up the ladder as high as you can go.

As a teenager in New England, this pathway was reinforced by parents/relatives, teachers, guidance counselors, TV shows, and peers. Anyone who was not on this path was silently (or not so silently) judged. During my 11+ years of teaching high school chemistry, I saw this adherence to predetermined paths play out with my students. They would come to me in a panic because their grades weren’t “good enough” to get into AP science next year, or they worried that they would “never get into ____ (Insert prodigious university or program here)”. Never mind that their passion was photography or writing fiction. Never mind that they didn’t really want to go to college at all. This was the acceptable path. This was what it meant to be successful.

In my own life, I followed this path as best I could for a long time. I graduated with honors, went to Northeastern University for chemical engineering (because it was the most challenging), and then to graduate school for bioengineering. Even while at these schools, the next step was a narrow set of acceptable choices. At Northeastern, you were either going to work at a company as an engineer, working your way up to management, or go to medical school/graduate school next. I didn’t want any part of slowly working my way up to management so I chose graduate school.

Daydreaming of a new future

In graduate school, I discovered that it was best to at least pretend that your intention was to work your way up to becoming a tenured professor. Even mentioning that you wanted to go into the private sector, maybe create a start up company or be a project manager somewhere would get you snubbed by your research advisor. When I realized that none of these were what I wanted to do with my life, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that it was, I was in crisis. My whole life had pointed toward a specific pathway of success and somehow I’d chosen the “wrong” path. Admitting defeat meant failing at life, that I had in essence, wasted the last 8 years of schooling. No wonder I was seriously depressed and burned out!

Talking with other professionals has shown me that this happens in almost every field. There is a narrow set of choices that are deemed “successful” outcomes of your career path. If/when you hit the end of the defined path you are then supposed to just keep working at that point until you retire. It’s rare to find guidance on what to do when that no longer fits you. I am eternally grateful to the career advisor at UCSD who saved me from drowning by helping me to see the whole world outside of my narrow box, identify what my core passions are (helping others, being a life-long learner, problem-solving) and ways to use them in the world.

No one is going to give you permission to do what you really want to do.

That dusty old tome of “potential careers” my high school guidance counselor showed me was out of date the moment it was printed. When I graduated high school (1996), environmental engineering was not an official college program (at least that I recall reading about as I researched types of engineers). Computer science meant learning how to program using C++. Social media was MySpace, and smartphones were not yet a thing. Now, at 40, I still have a lot of working years left in me, and to limit myself to a path that doesn’t include the avenues that have opened since my teen years makes zero sense.

What are you waiting for?

Originally published at

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