Redefining Success

Everyone needs to feel like an agent in his or her own life. Everyone needs to feel he or she has some say, some choices, some ability to effect change. That's power. It's not Power, but it's power.
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I'm pretty sure Arianna Huffington read my mind. That's right. She is that powerful. You see, Arianna Huffington gave the commencement speech at Smith College this year (I owe a big thank-you to a high school friend who sent me the YouTube video). She said to the graduating class, "I want to ask you, instead [of climbing the ladder of success], to redefine success."

Now, naturally, my immediate reaction was a small freak out. That's the topic I've been researching and blogging about for two years and she's stealing it. But I am a mature person with a growth mindset, not a fixed one, and a positive attitude, not a zero sum one, so I quickly realized that actually, it was great news. Arianna Huffington is talking about redefining success and SO AM I. My blog is part of the gestalt. Or maybe I helped create the gestalt and SHE picked up on it. Whatever. There's room for both of us. But most of all, REDEFINING SUCCESS IS IMPORTANT.

Her introduction is a call for change: "But what I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but to change the world." She continues, "What I urge you to do is to lead the third women's revolution." Why? "Basically, success as we've defined it is no longer sustainable. It's not sustainable for human beings; it's not sustainable for the planet."

I plotzed. In Yiddish that means, literally, exploded, but I think you know what I mean. I was excited.

In spring 2012, I gave a talk to a women's group on my personal history with feminism. In my research for that talk, I read several books, one of them Backlash by Susan Faludi. Have you read it? I recommend it. At the time it came out (1991), I recall that I ignored it, saying, "I know all about the backlash against women. I live it."

But I learned from reading the book that despite being a feminist, a lot of my understanding of feminism was shaped by people who were invested in dishonoring, shortchanging and discrediting it -- like the founders of the Heritage Foundation, whose goal (or one of them) was to turn back the clock on women's rights to 1954. Inadvertently, I allowed myself to be influenced by their disparagement and to distance myself from "those feminists" -- you know, the "angry lesbians," the "humorless wimmin," the child haters, the motherhood haters. I, and by "I" I mean me and you, began to attribute a lot of negatives to feminism that wasn't essential to it. Which is part of how the movement got pushed out of the mainstream, corporatized as "girl power," and how we ended up with a lot of people who refuse to call themselves feminists, even though they believe in women's equality. In a nutshell. Newsflash: The media is powerful. My conclusion: The push for women's equality had stalled. The conversation needed to return to the mainstream.

So, voilá. Enter the mainstream.

How does Arianna Huffington redefine success? Well, to our society's notion of success, "money and power," she adds a "third metric." This metric is made up of the following elements: Well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving back. "Metric" is a funny term to apply to sometimes ineffable, always intangible qualities like those. A metric is a measurement; but it has a poetic meaning, too -- poetic meter. Well, it's unusual, but I'll take it. Metaphorically, we'll add a little poetry to the mix of money and power. The point is balance. She describes her third metric as the third leg of a footstool. And it's true, as she says, that a two-legged stool is unstable. A culture resting on power and money is, too. Without the balance of those other qualities, the search for stability through money and power runs unchecked. Conversely, and I know this from experience, if you have some sense of well-being, you are less likely to be in a panicky state of grasping after money or power. When you add that poetic quality to life, you can put them in proportion and use them as tools, not as ends in themselves.

What originally impelled me on my search for a meaningful definition of success was the need to find a way to "count" the other areas of my life, outside of work, in which I had been investing time, effort and creativity, so that I could feel successful. Just a couple of days ago, in my monthly conference call with a couple of women, we talked about how important it is not to discount other areas of your life just because you don't find success in your work. In other words, using work as the only valid yardstick to measure yourself is a bad idea. I've found it's much easier to feel successful if I have a basic feeling of well-being, as well as a feeling of moving towards something and moving with a purpose.

Let's talk about money and power, two of the three legs of this redefinition of success. Money and power are old standby earmarks of it, so this isn't exactly a whole new definition. But adding that third metric is a huge step. Besides, money and power are important, too. We can talk capital-M and capital-P Money and Power, in which case we're talking about big wigs; or we can talk about lowercase-m and lowercase-p money and power, applicable to "little wigs" like me. As metrics, only money is measurable; power is relative. Take power. Power applies to everyone. Everyone needs to feel like an agent in his or her own life. Everyone needs to feel he or she has some say, some choices, some ability to effect change. That's power. It's not Power, but it's power. Now take money. Everyone needs enough. What is enough? That's a topic for another day. But I personally felt a lot better and more successful when I found a way to earn some. It gives a person independence -- again, that sense of agency. And of course it's related to power, too, to the sense of agency, just as Money and Power are entwined. Things interconnect.

Overall, if you look at the bigger picture of this commencement address in this human moment, you have a media mega-mogul, Arianna Huffington -- female -- talking about balance in life; and you have a corporate superstar, Sheryl Sandberg -- female -- identifying as feminist and talking about changing policy at the top; you have Anne Marie Slaughter, an intellectual with government experience -- female -- addressing the difficulties of "having it all." Forget whether you totally agree with them. Just look at the discourse. There are prominent people -- women and men -- talking about creating a better, more fulfilling, and more meaningful life. That is good, period. The conversation is happening. And I am part of that conversation.

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