what does success mean, anyway?

“It looks like you’re doing well for yourself – you’ve become successful.”

These words, spoken by a friend I hadn’t seen in years, stopped me in my tracks. “Me?” I responded in genuine surprise.

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She nodded emphatically, and flattered, I asked her why she thought so. I never had labeled myself as such. We fell into a (long) conversation about our careers and the paths we had found ourselves on at this point in our lives.

My friend, who has her Masters in Childhood Education, has had difficulty finding a job as a teacher, so she has accepted a position at a daycare center as a caregiver/aide. Making way below the wage she hoped or expected, she expressed her frustration at finding a position that not only fulfills her personally, but meets her expectations professionally – as in, she gets to not only use her education, but also earns a competitive wage for doing so. “Even so,” she said, “we both know teachers don’t even make that much. I don’t feel like my expectations are too high, so it becomes very discouraging.”

Then there’s me.

I don’t have a college degree (I have roughly 30 or so credits of community college under my belt in Business Administration). I began working in an office at 17 years old as part of a work-study program and early on, I was earning ahead of what my friends were. Being the creative type, I tend to get bored unless I feel challenged, so I’ve dabbled in different jobs and industries. I currently work in the cosmetics industry for a prestige brand; then there is my side hustle, freelance writing. For all intents and purposes, I suppose I AM “successful” (and it’s all subjective, anyway). However,  my friend’s statement made me stop and reflect.

A few years ago I would have given anything to be where I am right now, and it’s easy for even me to forget sometimes.

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In 2009, I was newly divorced, and living off unemployment, thanks to the Great Recession of 2008. When I did find work again, I took a $30k+ pay cut just to have a job to support myself and my son. Yes, you read that correctly. But, my job was less than 5 minutes away, and my son was only three years old; for me it was a bonus that I was able to pick him up from the daycare (that basically almost my entire paycheck paid for). I could never eat out for lunch or dinner, and birthdays had to be planned and saved for well in advance. I tried to be resourceful and pinched pennies as well as I could (and I remember budgeting to the penny, literally). I once applied for a grant through the state to help single parents, which would have helped pay a portion of my son’s daycare costs (almost $900 per month). I will never forget receiving the letter of denial, saying I made $700 too much a year to qualify. I remember hoping that the person who had to send me that letter truly hated their job.

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I was lucky enough to rent an upstairs apartment from my grandmother, which was a steal at $200 a month. Paying that as rent, plus electric and gas, and other normal bills plus groceries – I was left with nothing, and couldn’t even really save anything (I would put $5 or $10 away every paycheck). I often wondered how people actually survived without help. If anything, I can always say I am – and have always been – extremely lucky to have my family and friends there to help me through really tough times.

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Credit? I had no credit. I was aware of the damage done during my marriage, but turns out my ex had opened multiple accounts – all in my name. I finally had to swallow my pride and ask my father to borrow money to file for bankruptcy, because I knew the situation would only get worse before it got better. I needed a fresh start.

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At one point, I believed my ex that my car was worth selling, and I could just use an old station wagon he had. I truly wish I had a picture/video of it, it was the oldest, most ghetto thing ever – and you could hear it coming from 5 miles away. I was 29 and it was a far cry from the days I used to drive my pretty, new Mustang GT. I used to think, oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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I really didn’t have any goals at that time – I just wanted to stop struggling, considering I wasn’t sure how I had ended up where I was. And of course, make my son proud in the process. I started going back to school again, briefly – I never was interested in Business (or more accurately – math. Algebra is my arch nemesis). But slowly and surely, I started getting my shit somewhat together.

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I got a better job, and I got a better car… and since that time, I’ve more than tripled my salary. Then, came the writing, which seriously just started with me deciding to start a blog and see what happens. Two weeks later I got published for the first time, and now here we are.

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I literally just finished paying my father back this past week for my divorce, bankruptcy, and a few miscellaneous loans. Talk about a milestone! (the divorce was worth every penny and more btw) My credit score is finally ebbing above the “needs work” yellow line and I have real credit limits again… and savings. But it took a lot, and it took me years to get back.  And I won’t diminish my efforts, I tried really fucking hard, and it’s been hard. So I am really fucking proud of myself, and yes, all the f bombs are totally warranted.

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So, I think I know what my friend sees. It’s the social media output – my vacations to Europe, drinks in the city with friends, my ability to go out when I wish, etc. – and yes, it’s a fact, that stuff happened and Europe was amazing (both times!). I celebrate those things as huge wins, and it definitely hit me this summer as I was strolling through Italy and Spain and Nice and Cannes – the south of fucking France – who am I? It was euphoric.

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But, successful? Not yet. To me, I look at my friend (and others) with a defined education and career path as the successful ones. I always envied those that seemed to have it all figured out. I feel like I hit every detour along the way to end up where I am. I have so much more to accomplish, and my success isn’t defined by the material stuff. I hope I never consider myself successful, and am always left striving for more.

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In the meantime?

Gratitude. Tons of it. 

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With love and rosé,

Karen

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