Most of us possess a broad, subconsciously felt definition of success.

This definition is compiled over the course of our lives, and iterated and updated as we learn more about the world, as we learn and work, as we receive advice and acquire accolades.

It also evolves as we achieve flavors of success along the way: a top grade on a paper at school, a diploma, a prestigious title at work, a partner we’re proud to have in our lives.

For many of us, though, this definition we’ve cultivated is imprecise, incomplete, or misaligned. It’s a goal—or more likely, a series of goals—but the path toward it was paved by someone else: it’s cobbled with another person’s ideals or philosophies.

It was carved from the wilderness by well-meaning forebears who wanted us to have things easier than they did, so they cut the path, set down stones, put up abundant signs and markers, and mass-produced maps so that we would all have decent idea of where to go, what to do, and in what order.

And for many of us, these maps can actually get us to someplace far better than we would manage on our own; at least early on in our lives.

Common cultural knowledge can help us become financially secure, professionally productive, and interpersonally successful by some standards of stability. Adhering to this general understanding of how we should behave and what we should want, in other words, can get many of us perhaps 75% of the way to happiness and fulfillment. Not too shabby, all things considered. For a one-size-fits-all template, that’s pretty dang good.

At some point, though, many of us will come to the realization that, although this path we’ve been walking is pretty good, at least compared to many of the alternatives, it still doesn’t tell the whole story or fit everyone equally well. It’s a broad-strokes, utilitarian success, but for any given individual it might lead to some sort of happiness, leave them spiritually drained and perpetually longing for more, or a bit of both.

Because of the nature of this question—what’s right for me, specifically?—there’s no single, perfect answer.

But we can step back and tackle it from a more fundamental level by asking ourselves what success means to us. What does it look like? How do we measure it? How might we determine which metrics are truly important to us, and which are important because we’ve been raised to believe that they are?

Nearly a decade ago, I decided that although money is important up to a point—I wanted to be able to afford food and shelter, to be able to pay for the things I want to do, the adventures I want to have—it wasn’t the only, or most important metric of success I should be pursuing.

Owning my time and being able to decide how I spent it was vital, as was doing work I cared about, creating things I thought were valuable that was I proud to have my name on, and being able to spend as much time as I wanted with my favorite people.

The pursuit of money and the pursuit of these other goals are not always in opposition to each other, but it’s important to find the balance point between them so that when they are in opposition I know where to invest myself and where to pull back. It’s easy, if I’m not paying sufficient attention, to shift too far in one direction, throwing the whole wobbly setup into disarray.

That’s one of the downsides of creating your own, unique template: there’s no pre-built guide to tell you what to do, when, and how to make necessary readjustments. And there’s no preset formula that’ll help you reliably right the ship when everything starts to go sideways.

It’s more work, it requires more inward-facing exploration, and it forces us to keep our fingers on our own emotional, psychological, and productive pulses.

We have to come up with our own standards for success, for failure, for balance and fulfillment. We own our mistakes and get to claim our achievements, but most of our lives will be spent in the grey spectrum between the two, because of the constant acclimation to new realities and adjustment in stance as we learn about ourselves and the world.

Deciding to take the reins and define success for ourselves, then, means accepting responsibility for what happens at both ends of those reins.

This essay was originally published in my twice-monthly (or so) newsletter.

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