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Scrapping Outdated Definitions of Success

For a century, the telltale sign that a son has transcended the status of his father — i.e. became “better off — is that he moved into a more intellectual class of workers. Studies show that even though we Americans have a comparably low chance of social mobility compared to people from other middle- to high-income countries, we have the most strongly worded belief in the magical properties of meritocracy.

We’re not only a bit delusional about just how sticky economic class is generation to generation, but we have a sort of double consciousness when it comes to this kind of transcendence. We lionize the kid who is the first in his family to graduate from college and sport a suit to work, and yet, we romanticize the seemingly simpler times when a man could “earn honest pay for an honest day’s work,” count on his job thanks to unions and the pre-globalization era, and leave work behind when he clocked out.

Think of pretty much every presidential candidate in the last decade who has proudly spoken of his father’s calloused hands and dogged work ethic; the implication is that the candidate is worthy of your vote because he bootstrapped his way up the economic ladder. That he frames his story in this way is supposed to be a comfort to the voter, reassurance that we live in a country where this can still happen (though, again, it is statistically rare). But what of the father? What is the son escaping, exactly? And why is that escape ennobled?

The female version of this story is newer, but no less fraught. Women became a full half of the workforce starting in 2009. In the lead-up, many of us who came of age in the 1980s and 90s had mothers who worked — some full time and painfully forced to fit into a work culture and structure designed for men with no care-taking responsibilities, and some part time, cobbling multiple service jobs together or doing freelance work before it was trendy.

Is it any wonder that it’s hard to find a woman in her sixties who feels fantastic about her choices, or options, as it may be more accurately termed? Some believe that they worked too much, either out of necessity or compulsion, and missed out on precious and fleeting moments of their kids’ lives. Some feel like they didn’t work enough. They’re left with the discomforting sense that they didn’t realize their potential outside of the four walls of their homes (not to mention, a lot of economic insecurity). In any case, women tend to walk around with an itchy, un-lived version of their own lives.

Carl Jung wrote:

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

So it goes with work. Our personal narratives are as unique as fingerprints — each of us making educational and professional choices in response to the ones our parents did (or beyond choice, what they had access to). The cultural narrative overshadows us all, to the extent that we buy into it: you will be successful if you can go beyond your parents’ earnings and their collar.

The rub is that it’s simply not true.

Bigger earnings don’t always translate into a better life, as evidenced by the preponderance of miserable lawyers, doctors, sales managers, and investment bankers. The trusty old collar metaphor turns out to be dangerously reductive, as was so beautifully discussed in Krista Tippett’s recent interview with Mike Rose.

As the tectonic plates of work shift under our feet, there’s a palpable sense of professional insecurity. On the flip side, there’s a real opportunity to tell the truth in a moment when we don’t have as much to lose. If we successfully scrap outdated definitions of success — salaries and collars, foremost among them — what’s left?

Here’s my attempt at synthesizing what I see among my friends, family, colleagues, and co-housing community. We want to be paid enough to live without the specter of an empty bank account or an empty cupboard hanging over our heads. We want to have access to childcare for our children and doctors for our aging parents. We want work that demands something of our minds and our bodies; we want to think and move. We want to feel like our gifts, whatever weird and wonderful things those might be, are put to good use (which first requires knowing what they hell they are). We want to work alongside other people who see and celebrate those gifts, people who teach us things, people who want to make cool stuff with us, people who are kind and mostly good and don’t create a lot of unnecessary drama. We want to be treated fairly. We want to be trusted, to know how and when and where we do our best work. We want to wake up in the morning and feel like there is a place to direct our energy and that place, while it may not define us, dignifies us.

So the next time a politician or a career counselor makes you feel like the American way to think about profession is as a ladder stretching into the sky, and the only way you can be successful is by climbing higher than those you love, call out the bullshit. Turns out, it’s not bootstraps that we need; it’s lie detectors.

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