Would you rather be happy or successful? It’s an oft asked question which appears to assume that life is a choice between one or the other. I believe that it is absolutely possible to be both happy and successful without having to compromise. In fact I have often believed that the happiest and most successful people are those who define their own lives rather than adhering to some general definition of what constitutes the best of everything.
Growing up I was a bright hard working student. By the end of my high school years I had earned the title of valedictorian of my graduating class. It was an honor but what meant more to me was knowing that I had but forth great effort and had learned new ideas and skills that would serve me well for the rest of my life. The joy in being valedictorian was not in being number one but rather in taking full advantage of the educational opportunities that I had been lucky enough to have.
I sometimes wonder if I would have done so well had it not been for the death of my father who had always challenged me to read and think and push myself to be my best. Somehow after he was gone I wanted to prove to him that I had heard his message and so I embarked on a journey geared to gaining as much knowledge as possible. I was successful in that endeavor and in the process I just happened to end up ranked high in my class, but that had never been my goal. My happiness upon graduation came from all of the books I had read, the mathematics that I had learned and the habits that I had developed. I would use every one of the skills from those years throughout my life just as my father had so often told me I would.
Many people in my family had ideas about how I might turn my academic achievements into a success story. They urged me to become a doctor or a lawyer or a business woman. They spoke of the prestige and earning power of such endeavors. They reminded me that I had the abilities to achieve remarkable goals and that I should never settle for being ordinary. Because I wanted to please them as much as I believed that I had posthumously satisfied by father’s dreams for me I floundered in my early years at the university. I earnestly attempted to consider the more lofty kinds of majors that our society so admires but whenever I entered such departments and took the courses I made high grades but left feeling empty and unfulfilled. I felt no joy in the school of business. Sciences for medicine bored me. I only felt the giddiness of happiness when I was studying the subjects that would train me to be a teacher.
Because so many who knew me kept insisting that I should do more than train for a job that they thought anybody might do, I went back and forth between considerations for my future. I took unrelated classes and changed majors while getting stalled in my progress toward earning a degree. It was only when I decided that finding happiness and purpose was my definition of success that I stopped listening to the naysayers and forged full steam ahead toward becoming a certified teacher. After that I never looked back and I learned how to tune out the negativity from those who seemed saddened that I would never achieve as much as they had hoped I would.
I loved my work and even though I made a pittance of what I might have if I had followed the advice of the well meaning people in my life I felt happy and successful every single day that I worked. There were times when my personal life became stressful due to my mother’s mental illness or health challenges that my husband or children endured. Teaching was my anchor, my place of calm. My classroom was a second home for me. Just as schooling had always distracted me from the sorrows of losing my father so early, teaching kept my mind busy and provided me with a sense of accomplishing something so much more important than filling my bank account.
I think that if someone is as lucky as I have been he or she will discover what is exciting and meaningful and in the process both happiness and success will follow. For some that will mean securing careers in the kinds of areas that did not work for me. The beauty of work life is that there are so many possibilities from which to choose. The key is to find the link between our abilities and our passions and our jobs. I was able to do that and even in my retirement and role as a grandmother I am still teaching on a regular basis. Being able to help young people feel more confident with mathematics and themselves has been such a joyful experience that I have continued to teach and tutor during our dreaded COVID 19 pandemic.
Our society is more and more often discouraging young people who want to study history or literature or languages or philosophy in favor of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, business. Parents send their young adults to college urging them to major in something that will ensure them a high paying job. They cringe at the thought of psychology or sociology classes which they view as worthless and yet if they were to glance at a listing of the classical educations of old they would be surprised to see that the emphasis was on thinking and learning about a variety of topics rather than training for specific jobs. We have begun to chase money rather than ideas and ideals. In doing so I wonder how many young people will one day find themselves feeling both unhappy and unsuccessful.
I would like nothing more than for everyone to feel as satisfied with their lives as I do. I have thousands of memories of glorious days when I reached the hearts and minds of my students. I never reached a six figure salary but the riches of living a purposeful life have meant far more to me. I have enough to live well and more than a good share of happiness. If that is not success then I do not know what is.