Redefining Success, Celebrating the Ordinary

Recently my friend, teacher, and mentor Katrina Kenison shared an article with me from The New York Times.  She was quoted in a thoughtful piece called Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary, which explores a topic that feels both current and thorny: our intense need to be – or, more dangerously, for our children to be – exceptional.

I feel a simple and intense identification with the values espoused in the article.  When Katrina is quoted as saying “…there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have,” I nodded so vigorously my husband looked over at me, wondering who I was suddenly talking to, but found me staring at my phone, reading.  Celebrating the ordinary, most mundane moments of every day is perhaps the central task of my life.  This blog is, you could say, a poem to the wonder and beauty, and to the heartache and pain, that exists in my extremely regular existence.

The article talks about how today’s parents all think their children are above average.  We know this is statistically impossible.  The extreme emphasis on exceptionalism feels familiar and familiarly uncomfortable to me.  One of the main tenets of my parenting is that I strive to praise my children for their effort, not any innate “specialness.”  Of course I love my children beyond reason.  But I don’t think they are in any way geniuses, or more remarkable than a million other children.  And maybe most importantly:  I don’t want them to think that they are.  I want them to know that I love them for who they are, of course, but I admire and esteem their effort, their dedication, their hard work.  This is the way to success, however we define it, and to joy.

Of course that small phrase, “however we define it,” is at the core of the article.  And this is where this topic gets tricky for me.  On one hand, I feel like a hypocrite.  I have certainly faced my share of critics who say it’s “easy” for someone who went to Exeter and Princeton and Harvard to disavow society’s focus on performance and achievement.  I feel a slippery sense of unease about this, sometimes: do I really, truly believe this, that ordinariness is extraordinary, even though I know I spent so many years valuing achievement and validation above all else?  Do my actions match what I say is my philosophy?

Well, yes.  Who is better positioned that someone who has lived that life to really understand at a deep level how incompletely achievement leads to joy?  Nobody.  And as I’ve written before, all of my frantic success was actually a way to avoid engaging with my own truest desires.  It is only when I let go of that map, released my reliance on an life shaped by external validation, that I began to experience real contentment.  And that was found – yes – in the most ordinary things.  In my children’s instinctive hush when they walked around Walden Pond.  In my observation of how light changes in fundamental ways as we wheel through the year.  In the quiet words of poets that whisper insistently in my head.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my view, with achievement, and I plan to keep teaching my children that hard work and goals are critically important.  But this has to be coupled with learning to listen to what Robert Browning called “the low voice my soul hears.”  I want to celebrate my children’s ambition and give them many opportunities to taste the wonder of ordinary life.  Surely it’s possible to do both?  I’m certainly going to try.  When their deepest desires come up against what the world wants them to do, though, I hope they’ll choose the former.  It took me 30 years to have the strength to do that, and I’ve never looked back.

How do you think you measure success?  How do you walk this line in your own life, and, if you are a parent, as you help your children navigate theirs?


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  1. Pamela
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    This is so honest Lindsey and completely without pretense. I too have seen both sides of this coin and for me the question is always “at what cost?”Success at what cost? Achievement at what price? Mostly I just got tired of all the striving and had to just sit down for a second.

    Thank you for so clearly elucidating a tricky topic.

  2. Posted July 9, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Great post, Lindsey. I read the NYT article with much interest and head-nodding last Saturday, too (right in the midst of The Tribe retreat, no less). Much like you, I striving to raise my daughter with both ambition AND a sense of wonder for the ordinary. Last night, while the adults wrapped up dinner, I spied Abra in a corner of the courtyard, crouched low, “painting” the flagstone with water, completely content. For some crazy reason I had this impulse to re-direct her to a toy, and had to stop and remind myself that she was already perfectly content. I hope we can keep on this course as a family; that, to me, will be success!

  3. Posted July 9, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    wow. I just spent the early morning journaling about these very ideas, the inherent contradictions and dialectics in my life, especially how I was groomed for “special” but feel quite ordinary (and the resultant shame of ‘not enough’). would love an honest dialogue in a safe, sacred circle of women about this…maybe we can create one together? thank you, lindsey.

  4. Posted July 9, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    This is a beautiful and thoughtful response to a topic I think of often. Sometimes my uncertainty about it reaches a crescendo–How can I possibly get it all right? How can I possibly calibrate the perfect amount of quiet and exposure for my children? Other times, I find that I feel so certain that our mix is perfect.

    Just this weekend, while at my cousin’s farm, my children ran free. To the barn, to the goats, to the pond, to the dogs. I feel that the need for this space “to be” is as basic as water and breathing. Despite my instinctual understanding of this, I did have a moment, as I rocked, where I wondered if I should be giving them some direction or organized activity. I (thankfully) let that urge pass and let them be.

    Thanks for a post that I know I will continue to consider for some time. xo

  5. Posted July 9, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I think about this all the time. Really probably too much. What I really hope for my children is that they find something to do that they love, probably with the idea that if they love what they do, sucess will naturally follow, but more importantly, fullfillment. And you are so right about still teaching hard work and goals because I think you can’t get real fullfillment without some amount of hard work.

  6. Posted July 9, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    There must be something in the air…I wrote about this very thing from the opposite angle, pointing out that everyone feels like an imposter:

    The ironic thing is that even the adulation of the public can’t convince us of our specialness…and that’s if we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, we do become convinced of our specialness, and we turn into Kardashians.

    Final note–I’ve always felt that I’m more credible when I point out that elite educations aren’t always the best choice, because no one can claim that I’m taking a “sour grapes” approach because I couldn’t get admitted.

  7. Posted July 9, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    This issue is present in my life…as my daughter prepares for her junior year of high school in a very competitive school district, the ‘specialness’ of everyone is brought to light by what classes they register for, who passes what AP test, and what scholarship they earn to which prestigious university. I want to validate my daughter’s potential while at the same time honoring her decisions to do what feels right for her…

  8. Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Man, isn’t this the same basic question parents have been asking for generations? How do I give my children a better understanding of what’s important in life? How do I instill in them the lessons it took me so long to learn?

    And doesn’t every generation end up having to learn their own lessons? Isn’t that a basic tenet of living? Learning the hard lessons yourself?

    It’s like the radical liberal daughter of the conservative preacher. It’s the artists son of the investment banker. It’s the new generation of women who choose to stay home because their mother insisted on working. It’s the pendulum swinging back and forth.

    Whatever we did too hard, too much, too fast, the next generation will flip and do the opposite.

    Are we just now learning that a balanced approach is the best approach? Are we finally understanding that the drives of the ego are what keep the pendulum swinging instead of still, aware and focused on the present moment?

    I don’t know, I’m asking. I’m interested more than anything.

  9. Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    This is a thoughtful and questioning look at parenting and achievement, Lindsey. I believe there is an anti-Tiger Mom book in this for you if you were game. You have the chops to take that on.
    – Glenda, author THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE

  10. Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    This is such a powerful post, Lindsey. It gives me a lot to think about.

  11. Posted July 11, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    i love this, lindsey. thank you yet again for giving a voice and expression to an experience that i share, at least partly. my sister has called me “overeducated and underemployed.” i also have gleaming degrees from columbia university and the london school of economics. i worked for years in shiny impressive museums and companies. and what do i do now? i teach a little yoga and raise my babies. and that’s exactly how i like it. took me years to figure out how to find my own bliss.

  12. Posted July 16, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I resonate with much of what you write here. I can’t imagine defining “success” as anything but – for children (since I’m in parent-mode right in this moment) – them being compassionate to themselves…and others. EVERYthing, then, is seen through thru this lens. Do I want to join the swim team? Can I work harder at getting a better grade in math? What do I want to study and where? What profession agrees with me? etc etc. The question I hope my children ask at every stage is: “What is the compassionate response budding from heart? What is the compassionate action to take?”

    Then, they will be successful, happy, and they will be about the flourishing of their own lives and hearts…and the lives and hearts of others. They will learn to turn inward and “sit with their own hearts”. They will be mindful of their own internal world AND the magnificent world around them.

    This is my definition of “success”.
    This is what I live my own life by and I hope to instill in my kiddos.