Defining Success

With the upcoming start of the semester, the notion of academic success is thick in the air. I can smell it. The word is chanted through the halls, written in dark, bold colors, and engraved in the minds of new and continuing students. We want them to succeed. We want them to want to succeed.

The thing is, success is such a charged word. It’s what people everywhere hinge on to deem their worth in society, in academia, or amongst family and peers. So it’s almost as if there’s a movement to counter that. Let’s not care about success. Let’s not worry about passing college. Let’s not allow “the big man” to determine our success.

And in part, I understand. Success is sometimes overrated. Or rather, someone else’s concept of success is overrated. When it comes down to it, we have to decide for ourselves what success means. And then we need to go for it.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online), success is “a : degree or measure of succeeding b : favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.”

As you can see, the definition varies. For many, success is “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” I will say this now: this is a hollow form of success. Sure, it’s nice to have money. Sure, it’s nice to have favor or eminence. But if that’s all you have, I feel sorry for you. Because that isn’t true success. Of course, that’s my humble opinion, and I know many who will fight me ferociously on this.

I like to think of success as the second part of the definition: “favorable or desired outcome.” This gives more room to fit in our own unique goals and aspirations. It makes success reachable since we can break up our big goals into reachable, smaller ones, and with each smaller success, build up our confidence in ourselves. In this way, success could be earning a nice paycheck, but it would be so much more than that: It would be satisfaction in our career, it would be love of what we do, it would be balancing our private and professional worlds. Each of those constitute success.

So how does this translate into the classroom? Success isn’t just about getting the A in the class. A’s are (pardon the redundancy) overrated. And if the statistics and research is correct, A’s are inflated anyway, so they don’t count as much as they used to. Success isn’t all about passing exams. Instead, success is about learning along the way. If you end a semester knowing more than when you started, you’ve succeeded. If you’ve built solid peer and mentor relationships, you’ve succeeded. If you’ve helped anyone along the way, you’ve succeeded. Success isn’t all about the end result or the big picture; it’s also about the process and the smaller steps along the way.

Of course, this means that in order to succeed in part, even if it’s not with an A, students need to care about themselves enough to have goals. Students need to roll up their sleeves and pants, and get ready to get dirty with learning. It’s not always fun. It’s not always pleasant, but it is worth it. It really boils down to students caring enough about their goals. If education is where you see success, then you need to do your part. Success isn’t just handed out; it’s earned.

And I would do well to remind myself of this conviction when it comes to my own goals and aspirations. Just because I haven’t reached my ultimate goals doesn’t mean I haven’t succeeded. I just need to look around me at what I have accomplished to know that I have, indeed, succeeded.

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