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How do you define success?

When we are young, we are taught that success will make us happy. We may not have been told this directly but we likely received this message from parents, teachers, coaches, social media, advertising, and modern culture. Being successful is what is often applauded the loudest. If you are successful, then you will be happy.

But what is success? What are we actually applauding? What do you believe makes you and your young truly successful? Does outward success (trophies, grades, top schools, top jobs, physical beauty) equal success? And does this equal happiness?

Most of us interchange the words happiness and success. With one goes the other. But is this the case?

Yes, outward success can mean happiness.

But happiness is largely related to emotions and feelings. It is passing and can be shifted by “happenings” outside of our control. Outcome-based happiness is like a campfire that will always need to be rekindled.

When we reflect deeper… what most of us really want is to flourish and thrive holistically (mentally, emotionally, physically, relationally and spiritually). For example, most of us wouldn’t want our kids to finally achieve their “dream job” and be miserable day in and day out because they only chose that path to “be successful”. They may appear to be successful to others and we can brag to our friends and family – but are they thriving holistically?

There’s nothing wrong with visions and goals of academic and career success. Achievement is one important pillar needed for thriving. But for many, it would seem – it is THE pillar.

What we DO is exactly that – A doing. And we are a BEING. It is important that we unhook outward achievement from our intrinsic value and worth. Especially because in modern culture, the emphasis on the external is lopsided everywhere we and our children look. When you define yourself based on what you do – it’s about performance. When you define yourself based on who you are – it’s about character.

Countless parents push and forge their young based on uncultivated, fragile definitions of success that are outcome driven. We often feel pressure about outcomes and achievements and transfer this pressure to our kids.

This over-emphasis on external achievement as THE measure of success comes at a price. Why?

Externally focussed definitions of success often fuel a perpetual sense of not arriving at happiness (as promised).

The underlying message is that when I “arrive” at this destination (job, relationship status, top school, nice things) then I will finally be happy and successful. While these things aren’t bad, many enormously successful people have demonstrated that, in and of themselves, they are fleeting and can leave us feeling empty. Especially if we expected them to fill us up.

When success becomes about the external (above all else), then we should not be surprised if ourselves and our kids develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the broken expectations that never end. After all, when we cheer the loudest for achievement and performance, the tendency will be to hide or numb struggle so we can always appear successful.

This can become a vicious cycle of hustling for worthiness and wondering why we don’t feel settled in our own heart, mind and body.

What gets undervalued when we overvalue external markers of success – is actually the most important aspect of success – our deeper character.

The “us” we take with “us” wherever we go and in whatever we do.

It is the steady work and the things we ARE that most people don’t see – things like our authentic character, our love and connectedness with and towards others, and our persistence towards long-term goals. Those outcomes emerge from our character. This behind-the-scenes “becoming” is a bunch of little successes that are linked to who we are and who we will become holistically.

These last years we have raised five American-born kids (raised mostly in the U.S.A. and then for five years in Spain). Our kids have had adventure, privilege, and lots of struggle.

These kids all played / play high-level sports. We’ve had two make their respective national teams at the youth level. Without a doubt, we have emphasised lopsided and ego-centric success on our journey. We’ve watched ourselves and others march like robots to the drumbeat of an exterior achievement definition of success. We’ve also watched this backfire. At times we’ve pushed our kids towards these external goals, never noticing the spark had gone out of their eyes. It can happen to all of us.

There is great news though!

We all get opportunities to wake up, humble ourselves and rethink what end goal we are trying to create. What do we value and what are we aiming for?

What is authentic success for us?

Are we clear on our own values?  Do they align with what we applaud, prioritise and enjoy about our kids?

If not, then we need to do a bit of slow work to gain clarity and reset.

When we align our definition of success with our most important values, we can authentically experience success whether the scoreboard tilts in our favour or not.

We begin to live FROM our values into the external happenings and not the other way around.

In our case, we realised that the external is just that… external. We were grateful for the events, the scores, the blue ribbons and trophies and we would enjoy these things. But, living for outcomes is like wind, snow, sun and rain. Outcomes are affected by many things within and outside of our control and cannot be relied upon as a core value for our family.

As parents, we began to be honest about our subconscious need to imprint our expectations over our kids. This is not easy work but it is freeing work. We began to emphasise connection (being deeply seen and heard) and intentionally expressing that we were proud of the character growth we observed. We went on more walks, we stayed at the dinner table longer when possible. Plus we listened to podcasts, talks, and music that fed the spirit, soul and mind, while making all the athletes do art and music for the health / joy of it and not to be competitive or THE BEST.

We learned to chase down the slow and subtle. An oxymoron to be sure. We were determined to re-define success with our actions and words and live into the cultivation of long-term, broad-based success.

We aren’t profound parents… we read profound things and listened to profound others and grew in honesty with ourselves first and as a lifestyle. And we apologised a lot which eventually gave our young freedom to own their own human struggles as well.

Our truest definition of success is reflected in what we actually value most in our words and actions.

We began to applaud “the becoming” – the leaning into vulnerability and facing hard things with courage and showing up to our lives imperfectly.

As parents, we took responsibility to imagine what our children’s future selves would likely be most proud of. What would the future “them” be so thankful we emphasised in their youth? Would it be the achievement or goal itself or the fact that they deeply like and respect themselves because of all the becoming behind the scenes?

Faster than we imagined, our preoccupation with toxic striving and emphasis on external markers of success came into better balance. And without a single exception, everyone became more connected and confident and therefore s u c c e s s f u l.

To our surprise, everyone began doing better in their “performing” activities without the toxic pressure. It has been a win / win.

We learned to unearth, acknowledge and heal from what had driven our lopsided definition of success. We surrendered “how we were raised” or “what we didn’t get as children” or what the “neighbours are doing or not doing” and build ourselves and our family FROM WITHIN, from our values.

And, we learned to emphasise “becoming” and “overcoming” as “top shelf” measures of success.

Give yourself grace and permission to slow down. Give this to your kiddos too. Re-collect and return to what really matters the most.

Lean into your values and what success authentically means to you and your family. Let this guide what you applaud.

Above all else, laugh more and choose building connected bonds and enjoying the young you are privileged to raise. A deep sense of belonging is the opposite of hustling for worthiness and THIS belonging is the foundation for all present and future, holistic thriving – i.e. SUCCESS.

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  • Dr Tom and Emily Davis

    Dr. Tom and Emily Davis are parents to a truckload of kids ages 15 and older. Originally from Texas and Colorado, U.S.A., they have lived in Barcelona, Spain since 2015. They are the founders of Emily Davis launched a blog in October of 2019 called Tom has written five books and Emily is in the throes of completing her first manuscript on being orphaned to becoming a thriving parent and person. Together they do consulting, leadership training, writing and content creation for young people, parents, top companies, and non-profit organisations.