On Breaking Out of the Arbitrary Success Box

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ~Winston Churchill

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity. About how we define ourselves. About how we define success. About how we determine our worth in a world that sees our value as individuals through the lens of some seriously questionable criteria.

And a shockingly soulless list of priorities.

Because it is all too easy in our society to feel like a failure if your life doesn’t look shiny and pretty and perfectly curated.


If you’re not bringing in a certain amount of money every month or living in the sort of extravagance our culture has somehow decided we should all be seeking to achieve.

It is easy to start evaluating your own efforts based on material possessions and professional titles and paychecks, and how prestigious your career path might appear to other people or how envious said people might be of your lifestyle.

And you can all too easily fall into the habit of comparing yourself to everyone, using these external markers of so-called success to measure your worth relative to those around you, and allowing your identity to be built on this false foundation of an arbitrary and unbelievably flawed metric.

The truth is our culture encourages this kind of behavior, this kind of comparison-making, this pattern of deciding what we’re worth without any regard for the more nuanced, internal, difficult-to-define aspects of this crazy human experience.

I happen to believe that’s where we find all the good stuff. All the messy, chaotic, uncertain, truly surprising stuff that actually makes us who we are in this world.

Identity is this amazingly fluid thing, and you are not expected to be exactly the same all the time every day.


Nor can you expect others to remain static and unchanging in who they are in their lives.

Underneath the day jobs and the paychecks and the bank account balances, people are beautiful, complex creatures.

We cannot be shoved into easily-delineated boxes just because being able to clearly define who we are to each other seems to make us all a little bit more comfortable.

There’s even something counterintuitively comforting about boxing yourself in, I’ve found.

Because we humans have a hard time reconciling ourselves to the inherently uncertain nature of this life, and it can be even more disconcerting to realize that your own identity cannot be so neatly defined either.

And it can be challenging to stand outside the arbitrary categories of success our culture has placed before us and declare that you will not allow your self-worth to be determined by such a narrow list of fabricated and externally-imposed markers.

You are you.


You are not your accomplishments.

Or your career.

Or your academic degree.

Or your income.

Or your relationship status.

Or the square-footage of your living space.

You are you.

And I think that for some of us (most of us) these questions of identity and who we are and how we contribute value on a larger scale do not have such simple and readily-available answers.

I think some of us (most of us) need to ask these questions a lot and experiment with different answers and feel lost and confused and fucking frustrated for quite a while before we ever intersect with any sort of clarity.

It sucks and it’s hard and it would absolutely be easier if these answers came at more convenient times, but there really are no shortcuts in the process of self-discovery.

Self-doubt and anger and tears and this ubiquitous feeling of failure are all part of the process.


And none of them define you or take away from your worth in this world.

It’s ok to not know.

And it’s ok to lean on the people in your life who have the capacity to carry some extra weight and maintain some semblance of stability while you ride the Who The Hell Am I roller coaster of self-exploration and emotional chaos.

Being lost and uncertain does not make you inadequate or unsuccessful or unworthy of anything.

It makes you exquisitely, breathtakingly human.