How Do You Define Success?


Over a decade ago a friend and I had a debate about success. He argued that because he made more money and owned a small business, he was more successful than I was. In response, I listed my accomplishments: a college degree, teacher certification, a full-time teaching career with a decent salary, good benefits, and ample time off. I was doing meaningful work. I felt successful, but I didn’t have the words to convince him that we had achieved equal success. I’ve thought about this conversation often over the years. It’s haunted me in a way, because it planted this thought in my head, “I am considered less successful than my peers because I don’t earn as much money.”

We live in a capitalist society where money equals success, and spending is a direct reflection of our culture’s values. A quick Google search revealed the national average starting salary for teachers is under $40,000, while the average starting salary in engineering, for example, came up with results ranging from $65,000 -$80,000. It’s no wonder teachers can feel less successful, since so much evidence points to the fact that we are grossly undervalued in American society.

I wonder if it’s just me, or have many teachers allowed this cultural view to undermine their sense of worth and take away their power? The unfortunate truth is that when we let negativity seep into our beliefs about ourselves and our work, the messages erode our self esteem and cause us to question the value of the work we do. When our work loses its meaning, we become susceptible to burnout.

Self-worth: the true measure of success

The words I’ve struggled to find for all these years since that debate with my friend about success unexpectedly rang in my ears this week while listening to a guided meditation. “I am the most successful when I feel my self-worth.” Self-worth is the true measure of success. This is the sentiment I have felt in my heart all this time but couldn’t express. It’s a truth I want all educators to hear, because it is an empowering message. For too long we’ve allowed others to tell us our value rather than define our own self-worth. It’s time to reject society’s misguided values, rediscover our purpose, and reclaim our worth.

This is no easy task. Shifting mindset is much easier said than done. But in order to feel happier and more fulfilled, we must quiet the negative self-talk, doubt, and fear in order to overcome the resulting limiting thinking. You see, once we reclaim our self-worth we become powerful. We become impervious to people who belittle and undervalue us.

self-worth is the true measure of success

As educators, we have one of the most influential jobs in society. It’s up to us to shape a generation into independent thinkers, problem-solvers, and active citizens. What could be more important? We are role models to the young people in our schools and communities. For many of them, we may be the only adult they trust. The work we do is so meaningful, yet we permit ourselves to lose sight of that. Test scores and SGO data can’t begin to reveal the compassion, patience, and dedication necessary to show up every day for our students. But too often we let the criticism of politicians, policy makers, and even peers drown out the sweet smile of appreciation from the student we made feel important in some small moment of the day. We must recognize the value of our work as the measure of true success.

Self-worth and self-love, is there a difference?

Only by reconnecting with our intrinsic value can we reclaim the power to create more meaningful and satisfying lives. Through recognizing our own importance, we will improve our confidence, enabling us to enforce boundaries, demand respect, and make sure our own needs are met. Remember, getting your needs met is not selfish, it’s self-care.

Years ago I came across a calendar page with the affirmation: Self-love helps me make positive change easily. Self-love is synonymous with self-worth. I believe that when we truly love and value ourselves, it matters so much less what others think of us. Our egos are less vulnerable to external opinions. We become braver and, therefore, more willing to take risks. And change cannot happen without risk.

Avoid burnout and rediscover happiness

Psychology Today defines burnout as emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. I’m sure we’ve all felt this at one point or another. But what can we do to avoid it? If we want to overcome the frustration and helplessness that results from this kind of exhaustion, we must be willing to love and care for ourselves enough to pursue happiness.

If you’re currently on the burnout track, but you want to exit and merge onto the road to happiness, you’re going to have to be courageous enough to make the change. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  1. Prioritize. Make sure that your needs are getting met. Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relationships must come first if you want to recharge your battery.
  2. Rediscover your purpose. Remember why you started teaching in the first place. Give yourself credit for the important work you do.
  3. Continue to learn and grow. Growth is a key factor to creating happiness. So when you hit a plateau, set a new goal or explore a new passion. Try something new in your classroom or focus on a personal goal. Continuous learning is gratifying and helps us move toward our authentic selves.

Change can be scary, but the result will be worth it. So repeat after me, “Self-love helps me make positive change easily.” Believe you are important and worthy of happiness and fulfillment. You are powerful to create a life you love. 

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