Just Tell Me What I Need to Know: Defining Success After College
Even though it’s been a couple years since college, I’m writing this post to myself as much as anyone else. It’s hard not to compare myself to classmates who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs and high-profile careers, and feel like I’m “behind” on some imaginary scorecard. Even at work, I’m still the “new person,” the “junior team member,” and it’s hard to feel like I’m contributing meaningfully.
I grew up valuing a type of success that looked like this: a stable career, a stable family, with a good spouse and well-behaved kids, and enough money to take care of me, my offspring, and my parents for the rest of our lives. I was also raised to maximize my “status” or my “influence,” including an education at the right type of school, leading to the right kind of career and the right amount of salary.
Fast-forward to today. I’m definitely not a doctor, which is what my entire extended family hoped (and still hopes) for my future. I don’t make as much as my family expects me to, and a spouse and children are not even close to materializing. Not making the benchmarks that I’ve internalized has led to me feeling lost, and to a lot of reflection on what success looks like.
One practice that’s helped me redefine success is the examen: prayerfully reflecting on how God has been present in the consolations and desolations of each day. I’ve come to value both. I rejoice in God’s provision of the energy to focus at the end of the day, and know that he was not absent in the difficult conversation at work. In these simple things, I learn to find success and meaning outside of quantifiable numbers like the standardized test scores that I used to idolize.
Recently, I’ve also found comfort and direction in the book of Ecclesiastes. Near the end of college, I found disillusionment in the pursuit of a brilliant résumé and academic accolades, since they’d all eventually turn to dust. I was tempted to give in to apathy and despair—to simply decide that everything had no meaning. As I read through Ecclesiastes, I resonated with the honesty in the search for meaning and significance, and found comfort in the words about work:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (2:24-25)
There is goodness in the simplicity and rhythms of work and life, and it is truly by God’s grace that we are provided for and can delight in the life that he’s given. I’ve come to value a successful day as one where life is full of the bread-and-butter (actually, rice and stir-fry) of life: with work, grocery shopping, chores, and people.
Finally, I regularly ask myself this question: “Did I notice and participate in what God was doing in my life and my community today?”
With this question, I am reminded that my citizenship is in the kingdom of God, and that my allegiance is, in the end, to my King. It’s not a bad thing to be ambitious, working toward a promotion at work, learning a new technical skill, or building my network. In the long run, though, these things will all fade. As I look for a framework to guide my post-college values and decisions, it’s helpful to zoom out and remember the things that will last forever.