Redefining the conventional definition of ‘success’

Zack McDonald-Ryan

What exactly is the true meaning of success? When did it become the cornerstone of a life well lived?

“Success: (noun) – the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.” This immediate result of my Google search doesn’t sit well with me.

My issue lies in the fact that not one of the ten words in that definition was “happiness.” Although I’d like to believe that Webster’s definition is simply outdated, I feel as though the world at large still shares a similar view. It is consistently evident that decisions we make every day are based off of conscious (or unconscious) desires to attain some jaded form of success which will ultimately make our lives comfortable and happy. What’s the difference, right?


Coming from a place as affluent as Marin, it can be easy to imagine such a conventional version of success. There is a whole lot you can do with an endless number of opportunities at your disposal. Many teens are raised in families with parents who fit this image of conventional success and that image is then projected onto them: an ocean view, good schools, Whole Foods galore, and maybe a couple new cars—such comfort, such style! It’s probably worth stifling a few dreams and gritting your teeth through the better part of your youth to the point that you will end up spending a lump sum (that you rightfully earned!) on a night guard to keep you from permanently damaging your jaw while you sleep. “Success!” you think to yourself. “This is what I have been waiting for.”

That is, of course, only a stereotype, though a stereotype that rings true for many nevertheless. And it’s not isolated to Marin alone. The idea of “The American Dream” has been twisted and contorted into an ideal existence riddled with consumerist behaviors and a basis of happiness founded in others’ perceptions of us. A lifetime is now only quantified by some sort of legacy.

We could blame the media for so relentlessly corrupting us into believing that it is necessary for us to look or act a certain way, to be friends with pretty people, and own nice things that declare that we are, in fact, something to talk about. We could do that, but I haven’t really been in the mood for excuses lately. I like to believe that I can think well enough for myself to decipher between acting for myself and acting for some other reason. I’d also like to believe that there are others out there who can do the same. Disappointingly, those people can be hard to come across among both kids and adults alike.

I recently heard a musician address the concept of achieving success as wandering through an expanse of tundra, cold and unhappy, until you spot a glow in the distance. As you approach, you find that the glow is emanating from a flaming heap of garbage. Getting closer still, you begin to feel the warmth wash over you and draw you into its comforts. Then, just as you are becoming warm and joyful, you begin to realize just how repulsing and overbearing the smell of burning garbage is. So you turn your back and set off back into the tundra.

The key point of the sentiment for me is the turning of the back on what should be certain happiness. That’s wonderful for you if you believe that a sure thing is truly a sure thing and that stability is the most important aspect in life.

But really, what is stature or wealth or dispensable knowledge when it is accompanied by a gnawing restlessness? Why harbor regret or uncertainty? Why be so goddamn boring?

To be fair, I myself have only been around for 17 years. I haven’t lived on my own yet. I’m only truly passionate about such profitable career opportunities as music and writing. I am just hoping that something will go wrong with my parents’ refrigerator so at least I’ll have a decent sized cardboard box waiting for me when I get out of college. Who knows what will happen if some higher power decides to smile upon me and I am granted an opportunity to attain some unimaginable fortune at the expense of something I love.

It bothers me to think of all the ways to be extraordinary that are ignored by so many people in exchange for something lesser than. What about true love and passion, creativity and expression? I know that those things abound infinitely just waiting to be discovered and cherished. I just worry that that those things don’t fit into enough people’s definition of success.

So as I sit measuring the length of my feet, word by word, in an attempt to properly fill the shoes of this romantic, righteous wanderer I can so vividly imagine today, I think of my own definition of success. I imagine someone—at least one person—who is getting just where they want to be, remembering why it is they took the road they did but not its name. They won’t ever need to find their way back down it.