In June 2018, I returned to Arkansas National Guard Youth ChalleNGe (my alma mater), where I gave the keynote speech for their 25th Anniversary celebration. The director and coordinators were gracious enough to give me complete artistic liberty in my talk. I took full advantage of this latitude and gave a talk on why I hate success stories. (I’m sure there were some folks briefly holding their breath in the audience.)
Long story short, I hate the typical depiction of success stories, because they only emphasize the shiny outcome. The path from point A to point Z seems mystical, which disallows aspiring young people from seeing the gritty core of the journey.
After conveying this message, as well as a brief summary of the highs and lows of my own journey, I shared with the audience the ten “keys” that were vital to my success. Unfortunately, what you will find here isn’t a quick fix or a magic pill. It’s a list of hard-learned and hard-earned lessons that require endurance, intestinal fortitude, and integrity. If that’s a list you can get behind, read on.
1. Define success
I’ve encountered countless people over the years that say they want to be successful, but if they are asked more questions about what that is or what their life will look like, they tend to give vague answers. We all know that if we want to take a road trip to an Airbnb we reserved, we have to know where the Airbnb is. How else would we get there? Similarly, to achieve our desired “success,” we have to define what that looks like. Is it a degree? A profession? A level of contentment? A specific dollar amount in savings? In order to arrive at our destination, we have to know what our destination is and plan out the best route to get there.
Arguably, it’s just as important to define success so that we know when we’ve reached it. (How will you know you’ve arrived at if you don’t know where you’re going?) If success is a nebulous thing in our heads, we may find ourselves mindlessly and perpetually trying to reach up and grab that next golden ticket – deeming ourselves only as successful as the content of our last day. That’s a problem, folks, because a lot of days are anything but flashy. And, if we are always striving for the next thing, we will never enjoy the contentment and ease waiting to be derived from the fruits of our labors.
Even when I was lost and confused…and when I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, I volunteered. In the beginning, I couldn’t have told you why, but in retrospect, I recognize that I needed to believe that – irrespective of my situation or history – I had something to offer. I needed to connect with other humans in a non-superficial way. I needed to be a part of the world and to be inspired by others who were fighting their own battles and courageously living all the gory details of their own lives. I needed to be around others who aspired to improve the world – not just take from it. I needed perspective, and I needed to be grounded and humbled. Having these needs met became intoxicating (to the point that I eventually needed to detox a bit…but I already addressed that in my self-worth blog).
Volunteering in nursing homes as a teenager and as a long-term care ombudsman as a young adult taught me that we could either live a life of joy or a life of regret. Either way, we all meet our eventual demise. Joining Civil Air Patrol and volunteering for search and rescue taught me that in our most agonizing moments of crisis, we are all relieved when we see another human being – irrespective of their race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. Civil Air Patrol also taught me the value of specificity, the pride of a job well done, and the nobility of pushing myself when I felt I had nothing left. Opening a donation center for foster youth reminded me daily that all children just want to be children. They want to feel normal when everything around them is abnormal. The donation center also taught me that everywhere there are needs awaiting a warm body to step up and meet the need. Volunteering for the booster club taught me that nearly any problem could be solved with comradery and communication. And volunteering for the HOA taught me that everywhere there are hurt people hurting people, but there are just as many people who want to buffer the pains and blows of the world.
In every day, there are lessons to be learned and joys to be had. By giving back and engaging, we’re empowered to change a little section of the world…and we’re reminded to be humble.
3. Be stubborn
When I was in my thirties, I remember my exasperated dad saying, “You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met!” Without skipping a beat, I responded, “Where do you think I got it from? You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever met!”
While unbridled and ill-structured stubbornness can get us in trouble and stymie our journeys, well-vectored stubbornness can get us where we’re going.
In order to be successful, I have had to stubbornly pursue my desired outcomes (i.e., becoming a clinical psychologist, developing and maintaining a high-quality marriage, breaking generational cycles, securing debt freedom, etc.) – even in the face of vocal doubters. I’ve had to stubbornly believe that it was possible to avoid becoming a statistic – even if I had never personally known anyone that achieved this. I’ve had to stubbornly withstand pressures that would compromise my integrity, and I’ve had to be willing and able to stand tall…even when that meant standing alone.
Standing alone or feeling alone can test the will of any human, but if we remember where we’re going, why we want to get there, and who we want to be, standing alone can be tolerable. (Optimally, however, part of our stubbornness should be carefully and deliberately selecting the right people to stand around us.)
4. Read Sun Tzu
The first time I was exposed to The Art of War by Sun Tzu, I interpreted it at its face value: war strategy. Fast forward a handful of years, and I randomly came across a Sun Tzu quote while trying to survive a toxic work environment: “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” Suddenly, I saw The Art of War in a new light. I went back and skimmed the Cliff’s Notes version, and what I found was a whole new world…a world where Sun Tzu was now talking about how to manage difficult relationships and difficult people. I read it with an eye on how to navigate the choppy waters of working for an ego-fragile manager: “…encourage his arrogance…The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Sun Tzu told me not to show my cards unnecessarily: “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” From this, I extrapolated the thought that if a toxic boss keeps me guessing, why wouldn’t I keep him guessing? I only give him more tools to abuse me if I’m operating in the dark while he has a flood light. Now obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone break company policy or fail to adhere to their job standards. I’m talking about personal shortcomings, fears, and emotions. Why give an abusive boss that power over you?
And speaking of power over you, in situations of abusive power imbalances, we’re prone to getting stuck in cycles of reactivity, and our captors capitalize on this. Staying healthy requires us to get unstuck, recognize unnecessary fights, and remain nonreactive: “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
5. Sulk only briefly
A patient of mine once came to her follow-up session and made a confession: In a bout of sadness, she had eaten five tacos the night before. She was ashamed and self-loathing over her five tacos. “So what?” I asked her. She had been so caught in a whirlwind of shame and “shoulds” in her mind that she overestimated the importance of her five sad tacos, and my “So what?” caught her by surprise.
Here’s the deal: Life can be hard, and sometimes – despite our best efforts – we can’t catch a break. In those low moments, we need to lick our wounds and refuel our reservoirs. Thus, we all need to sulk sometimes, and we need to thoughtfully listen to ourselves when this need arises. If we disallow ourselves much-needed sulking time (and instead try to white-knuckle our way through all adversities), we are delaying the inevitable and making it more likely that we’ll eventually be struck down by a more crippling version of depression.
So when you need to lay on the couch, binge-watch Netflix, and eat five tacos, do it. But then get up the next day like a warrior – ready to regroup, dust yourself off, and fight.
Taco Tuesday only becomes a problem when it turns into Taco Wednesday and Taco Thursday and Taco Friday…
6. Play the right game on the right field
I come from a place where, if you want to be heard, you get loud and animated. This method for not getting punked was like a verbal version of making yourself appear big to ward off a mountain lion. Growing up in a particular context indelibly shapes you, and de-indoctrinating yourself is hard. As an adult, my verbal flares embarrassed my kids and mortified my husband, but when they challenged my tactics, I doubled down – justifying the means, irrespective of the ends.
Somewhere around 2010, I went into my son’s junior high school to confront the administration for treating him unfairly (e.g., skipping progressive discipline steps outlined in their handbook). I believed they were biased against him, because he had an IEP for dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
I remember the confrontation like it was yesterday: The administration staff sat behind the counter, and the vice principal stood behind them. I verbally flared – showing this “mountain lion” how big I was. More simply put: I went off on them. As I was colorfully making my points, I had almost an out-of-body experience. In one part of my mind, I was relaying what the problem was. In another part of my mind, I was observing their reaction – one of shock and discomfort. This part of my mind realized that they weren’t hearing a word I was saying. They were too busy emotionally reacting to my communication style. I also realized that the second I left, they wouldn’t give another thought to my points. Instead, they would all be relieved I was gone and gossip about this kid’s “crazy mom.”
As I drove away, I had to have some real honest conversation with myself: What do I want more? For things to improve for my son? Or to indignantly continue communicating displeasure the way I always had? Fortunately, I chose my son.
I then wrote a polite, but firm, letter – citing dates, facts, policies outlined in the handbook, and FERPA. I also thought about what would motivate them to change, which resulted in my letter advising them that another such infraction would leave me no choice but to contact the school board.
And then they changed.
This was a valuable lesson in my life, which permanently changed how I communicate. To effectively adapt, we must learn, understand, and implement the rules of engagement of our new environment. Even if I’m the world’s best basketball player, I’ll look dumb dribbling a basketball on a rugby field.
7. Beware false prophets
At every step along my journey, I’ve had people trying to convince me of what is “normal”…constant bickering in marriages, infidelity, struggling financially, hating your job, kids acting out. Each time I vented about something that brought me stress or unhappiness, someone was there to tell me that “everyone is like that” and that my “expectations were too high.” In my lowest moments, I actually believed them, which resulted in me feeling hopeless and made me feel like there was something wrong with me for not being able to be content with “normality.”
In a brief moment of clarity as a young adult, I remember waking up one morning and pondering on the fact that most of my friends didn’t have their own place to live, didn’t have a car, didn’t have custody of their children, and used drugs and alcohol daily. This realization was startling, and I asked myself if that was how I wanted to live my life. I clarified for myself that I wanted something completely different, which led to an abrupt and thorough reconstruction of who I surrounded myself with. I applaud this younger version of myself, because – while I was oblivious on so many fronts – I independently realized that what we are surrounded by is what we normalize. I didn’t want that lifestyle to feel normal.
When someone would subsequently say to me (about the topic du jour), “Oh everybody is that way,” I was quick to clap back with, “Well I don’t care what everyone else is doing.” I knew that – to survive and thrive – I couldn’t settle for what was in my immediate periphery. I learned to surround myself with people with similar values – people who were heading in the same direction as me (e.g., self-improvement, happiness, quality relationships, kindness, self-worth).
By the time I was in the Air Force and had a supervisor tell me that my “expectations are too high” regarding the performance and behaviors of my colleagues, I was completely unmoved. I knew my expectations weren’t too high, and I knew that humans tend to settle under the ceilings we set for them.
Bottom line: If we want to excel and continually improve upon the best previous versions of ourselves, we cannot buy into or be distracted by the naysayers who try to convince us to collect dust under mediocrity. After all, misery loves company.
8. Train for a marathon, not a sprint
Robert Strauss said, “Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.” Beating the odds is usually a journey of endurance, yet we humans often lack the patience and perseverance to see it through. At every juncture, we should have already planned our next step, and we should know how that next step is a vital component of the end game.
I haven’t done this perfectly. When I declared psychology as my undergraduate major, I didn’t know that I couldn’t really do anything with that degree. When I entered my doctorate program, I didn’t know an internship was required to graduate. Naïveté isn’t sufficient justification to quit, however. At each new learning point and setback, I had to dig deep, recommit to my end game, and modify my plan for getting there. (Recommendation: Find a good mentor!)
Bigger picture (i.e., beyond just the tangible setbacks), however, is that every “success story” is built on the back of a long, winding, tedious journey. When we see success stories in the media, we see a snapshot of the outcome…the payoff. What we don’t see are the boring days, the lost sleep, the self-doubt, the naysayers, the commitment, the repeated defying of a comfort zone, and the perseverance. To become a success story, you have to have the fortitude to persist through every painful and non-flashy moment of the journey.
9. Be the best you
My potential-future-daughter-in-law, Lexi, has a very particular culinary palette. She’s a big fan of barbeque, chicken nuggets, chicken alfredo, and pizza. In contrast, my husband and I are foodies. We view eating as an experience and an adventure. Therefore, we’ll try anything with a tentacle once, and we’ll eat out of a truck or at a dive as quickly as we’ll eat at a five-star-restaurant. If I made a Venn diagram of Lexi’s food tastes and ours, there would be a small intersection set, but largely, they’d be non-overlapping. So if we’re wise foodies, we’ll consider that non-overlap when we get food recommendations from Lexi, and she’d be wise to cautiously gauge our food recommendations as well.
I use this (real world) analogy to highlight that we should use some discernment when listening to the opinions and advice of others, as we all have different personalities, preferences, strengths, and desired outcomes. What works for Barbara may not work for me – and vice versa.
All my life, I have (like pretty much everyone else) been almost suffocated by a barrage of unsolicited advice. People have told me that I should be more ladylike, more deferent, more vocal, more smiley, more fake, more…whatever. My grandfather told me on his deathbed that I should stop fooling around with school and be a stay-at-home mom. My graduate advisor pressured me to be a researcher – and also told me I shouldn’t try to be “clever.” An Air Force supervisor told me that if I was less “intellectually intimidating,” people would be kinder and more helpful to me. And so on. If I had heeded the advice and pressures of every person who heaved them upon me, there would be nothing left of who I am or what makes me…me. My individual strengths would’ve been completely suppressed.
To chart our own course, we have to get better at wading through and past all the pressures people put on us to live or be more like them. We have to identify the individual strengths that we bring to the table and effectively marry them up with our values. If we do these two things without fail, group-think will not derail us.
10. Don’t fear the fall
Well, maybe it’s not so bad to fear falling, per se, as us humans are pretty fleshy. But if we act and plan based on fear alone, our scenery is unlikely to change. We have to take educated risks, or we risk being stuck in a safe little rut our entire lives.
In my most recent leap from the proverbial ledge, I was preparing to leave active duty service in the Air Force and was at a crossroads on whether I should take the safe route of working for someone else (i.e., steady paycheck while I paid off my hefty student loans) or the risky route of opening a private practice (i.e., no guarantee of a paycheck and no guarantee of a viable business). I actually started leaning toward working for someone else “for now,” because I was growing weary of asking my husband to bear various career and financial risks with me. (The fear in the back of my mind haunted me with a barrage of what ifs?) Fortunately, my husband checked me: “You’re just delaying the inevitable. The goal was never to work for someone else, so you either take this risk now or take this risk later. Either way, you’re eventually gonna have to rip the band-aid off.”
People where I come from aren’t business owners. They’re the worker bees, and I too was raised to be a worker bee. (In high school, I longed for a stable, $10/hour factory job.) So venturing into this new land was foreign and terrifying. I had to look at that fear, name it, acknowledge it, and leap anyway.
Leaps don’t always come with a fall. Sometimes they allow us to fly.
Joye L. Henrie, PhD