defining success and contentment

February 13, 2012 |  Category:   life me rambling

Does anyone know what kind of berries these purple ones are? Such a pretty color.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what “success” means. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what being content means. I get asked from time to time whether or not I realize all the things that I have achieved so far in my life whenever I lament about all the things I can be doing if I had more time. The answer is yes…and no. Learning how to be content is perhaps an art and a key to happiness, but I also don’t see anything wrong with always wanting to achieve more unless it makes you a miserable person in the process, of course. Maybe there are 2 kinds of people in life (a gross generalization obviously for the purpose of this post). People who are or learn to be content with what they have and people who can rarely settle and are always looking for more. I don’t think either way is the best or right way and perhaps it has more to do with your personality than anything else. Are these behaviors learned or conditioned? Or are we just born this way?
I admit that I sometimes bristle at comments that imply that I should be more grateful with what we have and what we’ve achieved. I pause and consider each time I get called miserable by strangers because of some of the things I’ve written. When I speak honestly about wanting to do more with my life, it isn’t about discontentment or being ungrateful and I don’t understand why it sometimes gets interpreted as such. I am always aware that there are people out there who have less and I am always aware that we are blessed, but this is rarely about that. It’s about channeling this inner struggle to always want to do better and more things in a positive way that keeps me excited about life. Some of us need that, whether you want to call it a distraction or a motivator, but some of us need that fire to keep us going.
There are 2 things that my music professor in college told us that has stuck with me through the years. They aren’t earth shattering pieces of advice, but I hear them rattling around in my head from time to time.
1. There will always be people who are better than you (this is in context of being a musician and a composer, not a “better” person).
2. It isn’t always the most talented who succeed, it’s the go-getters who get the opportunities.
It’s pretty obvious, really, but I think it was the first time I heard it from a mentor-type person. It stuck with me in the same way as something my mom said to me when I was a little girl. She told me once when I was frustrated about something that I would have to work harder to get where I wanted because I was a girl and because I was a minority (this was in the 80s, mind you).
So here we are 20+ years later. I think it’s natural to start contemplating life and career changes once you hit 40. I talk about this with my friends all the time. How much longer can we be freelancers at our careers with all these young go-getters snapping at our heels who can do it so much cheaper and yeah, sometimes better than we can? Even if we can, is this what we really want to be doing when we’re 50 years old? So some of it is the vague beginnings of an exit strategy and some of it is because we might be ready for the next thing in our lives anyway. Like any other person, there have been successes and some disappointments in my life. There are times when I falter and spiral down into the “what if” scenarios and question some decisions I’ve made that have led me to where I am, but we are where we’re supposed to be. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for bigger things. Personally, I can’t think of living my life any other way.
Defining success is a very personal thing for each and every one of us. For some it might be financial, fame, recognition or personal happiness. I’m trying to figure out what success means to me, but I don’t feel like I’ve reached it yet. My plan for my 40s is to raise the girls to be the best young ladies they can be before letting them go out into the world on their own, and to figure out what it is that will truly make me feel successful. It won’t be measured against anyone else’s achievements or criteria but my own. Maybe the business is the start to part of that success but maybe it isn’t. I don’t even know yet. It’s both exciting and daunting, but I know that whatever it is will only come with hard work and the will to make it happen – and if I’m fortunate, maybe a little luck.

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  • Kavita February 14, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Great post! I often contemplate success, happiness and being content. Your perspective on freelancing is so interesting because I am always envious of free lancers. You are your own boss, you make your schedule, it seems so appealing. I on the other hand work in an advertising agency and have built my career in agency life. I like it, but I always come back to wanting to work for myself because I work really hard and shouldn’t that be for me? I guess the grass is always greener. I have also learned that no one thing will make you happy. I think it’s a combination of many things. I live in San Francisco and the theme here is very much if you don’t love what you do – you are not a success and cannot possibly be happy. But I’m not sure that’s true. I like what I do as a profession. I don’t love it, I like it. I also have a lot of side projects just for me, I try a lot of new things, I have my own little blog and I think all these things add up to contentment and happiness. To your point, I think it’s Ok to keep searching and striving for more – it’s part of life and it’s part of growth. Thanks for the post. Best, Kavita

  • Stephanie February 15, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Great post – I’m one of those people who fall into the category of “can rarely settle and are always looking for more”. At a young age I knew that I wanted more for my life than the mundane. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words.

  • tanya phattiyakul February 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm


  • linda February 15, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    hi jenna!

    when i was 23, i quit my job & moved from orange county to boston with just a suitcase & a few hundred dollars. at the time, i kept close to me these words (from an oasis song): “find a better place to play”… it actually became so well known to the people around me that i even received a gift with those words engraved on it… anyways, since then, i’ve accomplished and lost a lot, and i’ve struggled with whether or not there would/should come a time when i should let it go… if finding a better place to play was a flaw that would ultimately leave me unfulfilled in life.

    this post encourages me to continue to do what i’ve always felt was the right and best thing for me… finding a better place to play is what drives me, and without it, i’m certain that i wouldn’t have the fiance, second career, and life that i have now.

    thank you for posting.


  • MCC February 16, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Kris Carr wrote this EXCELLENT post on handling criticism, btw. You might enjoy.

  • Rami February 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Ah yes…success…

    I have been playing with this notion for a long time. I in recent years have deliberately labelled myself as a failure, particularly as an artist. People cringe when I say that, but it is a label I don lightly, subverting the old pressure to fit any particular notion of success. It makes art making much more appealing.

    For me at this stage, practicing seeing what is, now, without judgement is helpful. There is contentment sometimes. There is restlessness often. Happiness, melancholy. Gratitude, impatience. Loving compassion, rage. I expect these things — the “two kinds of people” — are actually expressed by each of us at different moments in our whole lives, and sometimes even all at once.

    A wise buddhist, I can’t remember who, said to his studentsd:
    You are perfect!
    And you could all use a little improvement.

    I love your openness and honesty, thank you for this.


  • royah February 17, 2012 at 12:42 am

    I save your blog for last on my roll because it’s refreshingly honest and thoughtful. Your words really resonate. Thanks for sharing with us. :-)

  • sheila February 17, 2012 at 10:11 am

    really appreciate this post. i left a career to be a stay-at-home mom and have just returned to freelancing and i think about these things all the time. thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • elisa February 17, 2012 at 11:18 am

    This post is perfection! thank you for this. I will say, I think a lot of creative types have that feeling of not being content. That’s part of what drives us to create. To see what we’ve done and push ourselves to make it better. I think that spills over into other parts of our lives. And as you said, it doesn’t mean we’re unhappy. Maybe it means we’re driven.

  • verhext February 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    I wrote this last year: & I realized that for me, I’m not into the hard work or the go getting – that’s not what I want out of life. I’m here for the ride, and the most successful I can be for ME is to be tuned in and living the way I’m supposed to. I don’t want a business or fame or any of it, I just want to tie life things together and experience it all.

  • Jocy February 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Jenna, Your post resonates. I have had this discussion with my partner recently. I’m very happy with my life. I left corporate law practice almost 3 years ago and I’ve been doing human rights law/land law in Cambodia since. When I was in corporate practice, I was aware that others saw me as conventionally “successful,” but in truth I was unhappy with my choice of legal field and there was always a need, a passion for something else bigger, something that felt more authentic to me.

    I’m the type of person who always has something in the horizon, a goal driving me. I’m aware, now that I’m in my 30s, that while that drive has taken me places in life, it has also detracted from enjoying the NOW. I am the type of person who needs to energized in life, needs to be honing a craft that, apart from the daily and mundane rituals, excites me! Not everyone is the same, but it took me my late 20s to figure that out.

    We are currently facing our next big step and it is scary. I can imagine a life where I am more settled (one place, a position that I stay in for many years, a home),but I also want more for myself. I know that prospect of a baby in the next 2 years will change our priorities.

    I do feel, however, that this need to define “success” often with financial terms is very American. I’ve been able to recognize it a little as I live abroad, but I am no more impervious to it than anyone else.

    Anyway, I don’t known where I am going with this, but I accept that this type of self-evaluation will be cyclical and ongoing. And for now, while I do want more professionally, I am also aware that I am doing something I love and sharing it with someone I love. I am very lucky.

  • Melodie Byfield February 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what they are talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  • Megan Champion March 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Im catching up on all your posts today. This one in particular rings so true, and is much like one I wrote earlier today. I always think its terrible, when people bare themselves and others judge them. We are all human, and its nice to hear that other people hurt too (now that is terrible :)

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