what does it mean to be successful?

raising teens

my son Jacob and I at Epcot center

After going through infancy and toddlerhood and a rather rocky preschool period with my first two boys, I experienced a steady increase in parental self-confidence.

Seeing my sons thrive and grow and, yes, learn to fall asleep on their own despite any missteps I might have made in those early years helped me to realize that there really are many ways to raise great kids, and that what matters in the end is the big picture – not whether I get every little detail “right.”

But now that I’ve got two teenagers in the house – Isaac, 13, and Jacob, 15 – I admit that some of that confidence has been shaken.

Sometimes I find myself second-guessing my values and choices, much the way I did when they were six months old. I find myself looking at the decisions they make, and wondering how much the not-so-great ones reflect on me and my parenting style.

Mostly I find myself in the uncomfortable position of, once again, worrying about doing it right.

Doing school “right.” Parenting teenagers “right.” Raising productive members of society “right”.

But somehow the choices I’m faced with now seem more fraught than they ever did when I was choosing between cloth and disposable diapers. Because what my sons have entered now is a period of years that will directly affect that nebulous quality of life that we call “success.”

Which raises the question: what, exactly, is success?

The older my kids get, the more I feel that definition – according to the rest of the world, anyway – is wrapped up in school, grades, and achievement.

And I’m just not sure it’s a view I can completely buy into.

It’s not that I think academic achievement is unimportant. School is, after all, my kids’ “job.” They spent the majority of their waking hours either in a school building, or at home dealing with homework. Their performances now will affect the college they might be able to attend, either due to admissions criteria or the chances of getting scholarship money. Yes, what they are doing right now matters.

But at the end of the day – or should I say, at the end of this decade of their lives - how much will it matter? And to what lengths should I go to make sure they get the grades, ace the tests, nab the resume-impressive opportunities?

And – if I’m really honest – how much of me cares about these grades and performance because I actually think they are what will bring my kids happiness and success later in life, and how much is it more that I’m worried about “what other people will think” if my kids don’t perform?

While I of course want my kids to do well in school, to achieve, and have all the options in the world available to them, the older they – and I – get, the more I realize that their success in high school is not how I want to define their success as human beings. Nor how I want them to feel defined.

That’s a controversial position to take. My boys attend a public school system with high academic standards. Grades and tests and what college you get into are a big deal here. The 8th grade awards banquet is like a pageant of adolescent excellence. I can only imagine what’s in store for me as Jacob (a freshman) reaches the upper grades.

And of course I want my kids to do well. To try. To know the satisfaction of reaching a goal or making the honor roll.

But when I think about how all-important those GPAs and test scores and college applications are supposed to be in the life of a mom to teens, I’m just not convinced. Not convinced that better grades equal more success in life. Not convinced that getting into a “better” college means you’ll be richer down the road. Not even a little bit convinced that being richer down the road would equal being happier, either.

The more I am on this earth, the more I think we’re here to experience what it has to offer, to get to know the people we share it with. I believe we do that through learning. But learning is not the same thing as proving you’ve learned.

Not every kid is ready to take the world by storm at the age of 14 or 15 or 16.  Not every kid is able, ready, or willing to “apply himself” between his freshman and senior years, as much potential as the rest of us might all see in him.

Some teens are immature, some are disorganized. Some are late bloomers – I’m a great example of somebody who fumbled through my teens and early 20s, not hitting my stride until I was well into my third decade of life. Heck, I never even finished college, and yet I consider myself very happy and pretty successful, as my personal definition of success goes.

Look at today’s kids. They are already smarter than us – not wiser, no, but smarter – in so many ways. How will they harness the information they’re constantly swimming in? How do we teach them to use it for good, to innovate for the right reasons, to be thoughtful and kind and not just smart?

Is it possible that the way we have traditionally measured and judged human achievement and success is not only hopelessly outdated, but was inaccurate to begin with?

I think it’s our job as parents, as a society, to redefine what success means. To reward innovation and creativity and kindness and optimism and the willingness to try just as much as we reward getting the right answers on a test. To recognize – truly recognize – kids for their different strengths and talents.

To acknowledge that the path to success does not look the same for every young adult, and very often does not include a linear path from high school to college to chosen career. 

I want my kids to succeed. But success means so much more to me than A’s and B’s on a report card or numbers on a test. And I think it’s time I was bolder in making that statement, right out loud.

Because the last message I want my teens to pick up on is that they are somehow doomed or “less than” because they have a less-than-dazzling high school performance.

We all know examples of successful people who had so-so high school careers. And we all know examples of people who excelled in school and are now miserable, broke or underemployed.

So then, what is success? I believe it’s rooted in having the sort of tenacity and resiliency that allows a person to pick up and try again, no matter how many times they fail or fall down. A network of loved ones who will offer support and encouragement when things don’t go well and a cheering section when they do. And the optimism and imagination to see that there is more to life just around the next bend in the road.

That is my personal definition of success. And if my boys achieve that, I’ll be very happy regardless of their final GPA or which college they get into…or don’t.


  1. says

    Have you read Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed? I think you’ll like it.

    • Meagan Francis says

      Jennifer, I haven’t! But I’ll check it out…thanks for the recommendation :)

  2. Megan says

    Meagan – I have an over achiever, an under achiever with ADD and one who is bipolar. It was a struggle at all ends. But, we supported (within reason) what they did and learned their individual quirks AND medication needs. Happy to report the over achiever is working for a non-profit, the one with ADD works in public service and is sooo motivated, and the one who is bipolar, is the youngest, out earns her siblings, has a job at a top firm, and amazes me daily with her empathy and drive. Can’t ever predict what our children’s future holds. But as long as we hold them in our heart, they will be OK. I’m sure you are an awesome Mom.

    • Meagan Francis says

      That’s really good to hear, Megan. You know, I struggle sometimes with knowing how much support (or would that be, nagging?) it’s my job to give, and how much of this is up to the kids to figure out for themselves. In the absence of a learning disability or other issue that needs outside assistance, I am realizing that I can’t want those A’s more than my kids do. And the reward/punishment cycle I went through in high school, as a so-so- student, didn’t really help me in the end. What did help me? Getting older, having people believe in me, and most important, figuring out what it was I REALLY wanted to do. Until I got all three of those things together I floundered, but I’m starting to realize now that that was an important learning experience for me.

  3. says

    Your kids are so very lucky to have you in their corner. I want to shout what you’ve said from the rooftops! Yes! I have to run out the door so can’t respond more intellegently than that right now…just know you have a kindred spirit in me.

    • Meagan Francis says

      Coming from you, that’s a big compliment, Asha :)

  4. says

    As someone who was “successful” (it’s a very narrow definition, as you’ve noted) on a very traditional young adulthood trajectory—good grades in public schooling, prestigious college and post-graduate degrees, “important” job—even as I realized I wanted something different out of life, I assumed my children would be just as successful on a similar path.

    Oh ho, how life laughed when my “everyone can succeed in public school” mantra got traded in for homeschooling (which I’d sworn I’d never, ever do). I am embarrassed that it took me until midlife to realize that one size not only doesn’t fit all, there’s no reason why it should. There are lots of paths to happiness, plenty of ways to succeed in life that don’t fit a traditional mold. Traditional measures can be useful, I guess, but they’re not the whole story. And for some of us, they’re the wrong tools entirely.

    • Meagan Francis says

      “Traditional measures can be useful, I guess, but they’re not the whole story. And for some of us, they’re the wrong tools entirely.”

      I love this, Mir. That’s what frustrates me, I think – not that the traditional tools/measurements exist but that they are used as a way to classify kids and predictors of their success. Statistics and numbers don’t tell the whole story.

    • says

      Mir, what you wrote describes my life to a T. Not only that, the early, easy school success set me up for the entirely reasonable expectation that life would just continue that way forever. When life threw me some big curve balls during adulthood, I had few skills to know how to deal with them.

  5. says

    Oh this is SO spot on. I was homeschooled (all but for 1st grade), didn’t receive a diploma and obtained my GED at the age of 32 years old. (back before it was legal to homeschool)

    Now, I’ve got children attending international schools as we traverse the world living as expats and it’s all very non-traditional.

    I have struggled SO much with knowing what success in education looks like (because homeschooling gave me NO parameters for basing anything on) … but I think it’s ok to define success in learning/education differently for each of your kids. I think it’s ok to learn as you go …

    Great piece. Loved it!

    • Meagan Francis says

      Thank you Naomi! I actually think perhaps you have an advantage, because without having a (perhaps flawed) model to compare yourself and your kids’ education against, you’re free to go with what’s right in front of you and evident – are your kids learning, knowledgeable, engaged? You’re much more able to judge using your own smarts and common sense. And yes, it’s OK to learn as you go…after all how many of us remember everything we learned as young adults, anyway?

  6. says

    If you haven’t listened to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks, I think you’d love them. This is what I listened to specifically and it speaks to your exact feelings about how our definition of success has narrowed to the point of dangerously excluding those who don’t fit a particular mold (but whose gifts and contributions are undeniable). Worth your 20 minutes: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/22/155224654/building-a-better-classroom.

    For what it’s worth, my brother and I are two years apart (I’m older) and total opposites. I fit the typical “successful/traditional academic path” mold and school was easy for me. I didn’t succeed to please, necessarily, but “success” came naturally and easily to me. My brother struggled academically, especially in later middle school and early high school. In 10th grade at 16 and with the total blessing of my parents, he took the GED and got the hell out of high school. I know there was some heartbreak for my mom – but not because she thought he’d failed…because she knew that a big portion of the world would see it that way.

    Today we’re 30 (him) and 32 (me). He is successful (by multiple definitions), happy, and connected to our family and his friends. We are good friends. He worked in a trade for several years before eventually getting a college degree in entrepreneurial management — much later, at the age of 26 when he had almost a decade of real life experience. I admire him hugely, because while he now fits a more typical (narrow) picture of what it means to be successful, he faced coming of age in a world that didn’t see his path as one that would get him there.

    I think of how my parents were brave to allow us both equally to thrive in the ways we were naturally meant to thrive. They didn’t compare, nor did they ever make it seem like one path was more successful than the other (nor did they say a word or make me feel any less successful when I took my traditional path and VERY expensive college education and decided to wait tables and be a ballerina after graduating college). I think of how many people around them might have judged, or measured, or compared my brother to me, or whatever – and I am so grateful that my parents took the long view anyway. And I’m SURE we are both more grounded, happier and “more successful” (big air quotes) in our chosen paths because of it…

    Thanks for sharing, and for opening up an important conversation.

    • Meagan Francis says

      Sarah, I really loved reading this description of you and your brother! Your parents sound amazing, and I really love that they didn’t compare the two of you or your very different paths. That really is brave.

  7. says

    I toggle back and forth between the very view you present and the “our kids need to go to Stanford” view. I know deep down that the view you present reflects my core beliefs but every now and again, I find some really fantastic job opportunity that makes it very clear they are looking for the networked, ivy league types and I think that I want my kids to have those opportunities if they are willing/able. It is also one of those things where I had the opportunity to go to a school like that and didn’t apply myself enough to make it happen so I want my kids to have it if they want it.

    In all honestly though, like you say, it doesn’t really matter. Sucess is not defined by a job or grades or even opportunities. I listened to this TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/ludwick_marishane_a_bath_without_water.html on the treadmill on Friday and it helped remind me that people make things happen for themselves regardless of the opportunities put in front of them.

    In short, I think you have the right approach!

    • Meagan Francis says

      Alecia, I totally understand the conflict. I too wonder sometimes what amazing opportunities I might have missed out on because I didn’t apply myself in high school or, really, even in college. And then I stop and realize that I am actually pretty much perfectly cut out for what I’m *doing right now* and there is no guarantee that any of those high-profile, prestigious jobs would have been right for me, or mine for the taking, anyway. I think you hit the key phrase here – that you want your kids to have that opportunity *if they want it*. But I don’t think parents can want it more than the kids. I also think that even kids who aren’t incredibly driven at a very young age can find their way to those opportunities if they want them badly enough later. Probably our attitudes have a lot to do with whether they feel empowered to do that, though.

      • says

        Sometimes I think a focus on the standard path quashes creativity and finding an alternate path. That alternate path often leads to happiness, better work/life balance or simply having a much bigger impact on the world.

        Do you think you would be doing what you are doing right now had you followed a more academic approach?

        • Meagan Francis says

          It’s hard to say for sure – but I’m thinking probably not, because I would have felt obligated to stay the course after investing so much time/money in a program. And then there would be the issue of having my self-identity wrapped up in it, as well, a hold that would probably be stronger and stronger as I got older. That’s not to say I couldn’t change things up in my 30s or beyond…people do it all the time. But right now? I’d probably still be sorting it out. In a funny way it’s a blessing that I figured out early on just how very differently motivated I was. Like, before I went to grad school or something.

  8. says

    I really like this post. My kids are still very young- 3 and 5. This is our first year of navigating through school, and it was a surprisingly hard adjustment for me. My husband and I were both successful on a traditional path of school->college->graduate education->good job, and to a certain extent we assume our kids will do the same. But at the same time, I consider success to be being happy with your life, and I recognize that there are many ways to get to that, and not all of them follow the path I took. I hope that if one of my kids goes a different path I will recognize it and be supportive.

    I look around at the various people I interact with professionally, most of who have PhDs in science, and even within that group, I see a lot of different paths to a similar outcome. I have also witnessed talented, smart people flame out at various stages of the usual path because they could not handle not being perfect- a good friend in high school, one of my college boyfriends, a classmate in graduate school…. In all cases I know of personally, the person eventually righted themselves and are now having a happy life, albeit one that has led to less material success than their friends and families expected for them. In my book, those people are successful, but having seen how much it hurt them when they fell off their original path, and in one case, having listened to some wistful talk about what might have been, the most important thing I want for my kids is for them to be OK with failure. I think this is similar to the resiliency you mention. Sure, I want my kids to do well in school. But even more than that, I want them to be able to pick themselves up and try again when they don’t do well at something or when things don’t go their way at first.

  9. says

    Honestly, Meagan…this is why I no longer worry about my kids’ school performance very much. Let me explain: as long as they are thriving as people, they are enjoying themselves most of the time, they have a few good friends and some warm connections with teachers, I’m not the slightest bit worried about the grades or the academic learning. I *know* they are learning what they need for life, and that learning goes on long after they leave school.

    Did you ever read this post? I wrote it a while ago, but might shed some light:

    • says

      This is not to say I’m uninvolved or I don’t care about grades. I communicate to the kids the importance of quality work, attention to detail, and all that. I just don’t worry much about it.

  10. says

    Meagan, that’s an excellent article. I agree with you. Success is not only achieving academic excellence in life or land up with a job with a big, fat salary (of course it’s important!). For me success is how you turn out to be as a human being in life. If the way my life goes can make me feel happy and feel blessed everyday, that’s SUCCESS for me.

  11. Sola says

    This is indeed from wisdom pen. More of it!

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