Lessons from the Trophy Generation: The Meaning of Success

Last week I talked about learning from the lies our parents told us: I talked about how it’s okay to make mistakes, and that smarts don’t mean shit if you don’t work hard.  This week, I’m going to talk about the pressures we face.

High school for me was a whirlwind of hormones and bullshit.  I was disinterested in my schoolwork, I wasn’t as social as the rest of my peers, I didn’t buy into what the administration had to say… Oh, and they had a lot to say. “Focus on your work so you can be successful.” “Apply yourself so you can be successful.”  “Go to college so you can be successful.”

Now that I work in the school system myself, I see much the same thing. The phrasing hasn’t even changed: students are constantly told to do things without question in the name of success.  Not to mention, they’re constantly given examples of the unsuccessful: from grade one’s “Andrew is being very disrespectful” to high school’s “You don’t want to end up flipping burgers”.

But no one ever defines success.  It’s just this nebulous thing you’re supposed to strive for, the nirvana of the school system.

I don’t think it exists.


Even if it does, it’s different for everyone.

By the time I graduated high school, I had two (small) short story publications, an internship at the Washington Post, field experience with scientists from the Smithsonian and NASA, and a well-stamped passport under my belt.  I had written five full-length novels, even if none of them were really any good.  And yet I was not allowed to walk with my class; instead, I walked at the graduation with the rest of the summer school kids in August.  I was the only one from my high school present (although my awesome principal and guidance counselor attended anyway).

My success by age 18 depends on how you look at it. By the standards my teachers presented to me, I was a failure: I failed high school! But I was a success enough to get accepted to a small private college anyway, if on academic probation.

I didn’t apply myself in school because I was too busy applying myself elsewhere.  I have always been a workaholic, but I applied myself in ways that I thought would lead to success.  I focused on my writing and networking.  I did interesting things in lieu of homework when I wasn’t forced to be in a classroom; I had a huge amount of real-world experience.  I didn’t care about college.  I just wanted to write.

In short: my definition of success was different than that of my teachers’ and parents’.

This doesn’t mean I had bad parents or teachers: on the contrary, they were amazing. But even the best teacher in the world will have a hard time getting through to a kid who just has a different set of goals.

And that’s OK.


It’s not black and white.

The definition of success that’s been forced upon the trophy generation is, to my best guess, a college degree that leads to a white-collar job, two and a half kids, and a white picket fence.  Success has huge piles of money and a single track in a single company.  Success has good dental benefits.

There’s no mention of happiness.  Or experience.  It’s just flat stability, a baseline of human existence. These are not things that Millennials, as a whole, seem to value.

We value connectivity and human connection.  We can’t afford to value money; we’re the most educated, most numerous, and the least well-paid generation of recent years.

We value a “sharing community”, not purchasing gadgets.  And we’re putting off the milestones like moving out of our parents’ houses, getting married, buying homes.  (It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t afford to.)

We don’t buy things the same way our parents did.   We value experience. We’re more likely to spend our money on travel than a new car.  We’re more likely to rent than own.  With what money we do have, we’re more interested in experiencing than existing.

So with that in mind– how do we define success? We certainly aren’t getting that white-picket fence any time soon.   The thing about success is, it varies from person to person.  I have an ex who wanted nothing more than to work on a farm all day (check out WWOOFing if you agree or don’t believe me) and mooch off his wealthy parents, and I have a friend who wants nothing more than to be completely financially independent.  Success, person to person, is just plain different.


Success is defining your needs.

To close: success doesn’t exist, not in the way we were taught. Celebrities commit suicide, some of the happiest people I know have the worst luck in the world, some of the poorest people I know are the happiest.  In John Lennon’s last interview, he expressed regrets about his career.  The old saying “money can’t buy happiness” has a root in truth.

I think success is figuring out what you want– what you really want– and working to make that happen.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.


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