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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  • Heather February 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Here in Oregon we call them Beauty Berry.

  • Candace February 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm


    Two words……..Thank you! Lovely post, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said!

  • deborah k February 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    hiya jenna

    your mystery plant is a callicarpa, aka beautyberry. *:)

    a mystery reader coming out of her wee house to say hello <3

  • Sara Jensen February 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Dude. I seriously love you and this post.

  • jennygordy February 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Jenna, I struggle with these issues so much! Especially been thinking a lot lately about the very points you brought up, maybe because I’ve reached a new decade in my life. The beginning of my 30’s seems like the time to redefine what I want and make some decisions. Thank you for writing a post about it. It’s encouraging to me. I appreciate your thoughtful approach to life, and it’s nice to get to read these thoughts even though I’m all the way in Iowa and can no longer come to our biz ladies’ meet ups.

  • MCC February 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Goodluck on your search. I use restraint from commenting on every single post you write – but just want to say, thank you. again. always. every time.

    This space is such a gift and I never tire of it. Your eloquence and ability to “touch” seemingly strangers is a real and true talent.

    With so much gratitude….mary, boston.

  • Joy February 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I find your evaluation to be inspiring! It’s very interesting to read someone who is always focused on something just over the horizon and laying the groundwork for something better. I am one of those people who is content with what they have and would never ever change a thing (haircut, car, shoes) but my husband is always ready for something new. Reframing that drive in a creative, self-challenging way is really eye opening for me, as I sometimes wonder if he’s ever going to be happy!

  • Jenna February 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    @MCC Thank you so much Mary for such a wonderfully thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.

    @Joy Mark is more like you and I guess I am more like your husband, but is he really “unhappy” as you wonder? I guess that was one of the main points of the post is that sometimes people have interpreted that as being unhappy. Why can’t I be more content with what I have? It’s just not the way I work though, but it doesn’t mean that I am not happy.

  • Anna @ D16 February 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you, Jenna. You know I think about this stuff all the time, and you’ve really put it all into words so well here. It’s OK to change, it’s OK to be wrong, it’s OK to not be sure, it’s OK to want more…and it’s also OK not to. That last thing is the part that’s hardest for me. Recognizing your own success (however you define that) is really hard, but I think you have to figure it out in order to know WHY you’re reaching for that next thing.

    Like Sara said…I seriously love you and this post. (Dude.)

  • Teresa February 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    The pretty berries look a lot like the ones we used to see at the Huguenot Fort Caroline, near Jacksonville, FL…

    Have a lovely day!

  • Teresa February 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    PS – I meant to say they were called American Beauty Berries….

  • Inge February 13, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    The right post at the right time. I love it when that happens. I’m always looking forward too, wanting to do more, and I think it’s a good thing to, as you said, stay excited about life. But it’s also important to, at the same time, be happy with what I do/have. I find it hard to keep that balance.

  • jen February 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Jenna, Another wonderful post and so timely. I’ve been thinking of this as I near the big 40.
    I wanted to share this post with you.
    More from a guy’s point of you but still relevant. At the end of it all, isn’t success all about the people and the relationship you have with them? At least for me, that is what I’ll measure my success on. To be rich with family and friendship.

  • unha engels February 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    love this post.
    “fire” to keep going…

  • Lori February 13, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I honestly loved reading this because I was in the same position a few months ago. The guy I was dating told me that I wasn’t “grateful enough” for what I had. I tried to defend myself, saying I knew what I had and I was luckier than some people, but that didn’t mean I was going to concentrate on those things, but I was going to think of what my next step would be. It put me in some serious thought-mode for the next week and it upset me that someone viewed me as ungrateful.

    Obviously no one knows what goes through our heads all the time, and that maybe we think about this more often than we lead on, but don’t feel the need to talk about it. I think if you measure your success by a specific type of standard or goal (once I get here, then I know I made it) then working up to that goal but I guess not showing a certain appreciation for what you have accomplished makes someone think you’re ungrateful but to me it would be like, that wasn’t my goal, I know I can achieve more.

    Anyway, a lovely read, hope those comments don’t get you down.

  • Pamela February 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    What a timely post for me. I, too, have been grappling with the definition of success in my life and sometimes, it’s hard to eloquently describe this “fire” to do more without sounding unappreciative or lazy.


  • Rebecca February 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Jenna! I believe the berry is Callicarpa japonica which can come in purple or white. It’s an awesome shrub that does well in these parts and if we’re lucky leaves those berries through winter! Thanks for your great posts.

  • Cecilia Madden February 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    I love the distinction you’re making here between being discontent and being unsatisfied. Growing up one of my mantras was “never be satisfied.” Always strive for more. People in my life also question my happiness, but to me, this way of thinking shows optimism. We are constantly striving for something more because we think that we can achieve it. We plan for it. We’re not daydreaming about winning the lottery or becoming a princess. (I guess those might be considered “happy” thoughts, though.)

  • Annie February 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I wonder about this so often myself, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how having a more public (internet-based) life affects how we think of our own inner struggles and contentment. Like most people, I tend to share a good deal of my happy, exciting moments on Facebook, though in my day-to-day I am prone to a lot of anxiety and self-doubt. A few weeks ago, as I was agonizing over something in my creative/professional life, my sister interrupted, not unkindly, with: “You know your life looks perfect, right?” It was strange to understand that although I had been the one painting that picture of my perfect life, it was still so hard for me to see it for what it was. It’s not that I’d been lying, or embellishing. The perfect moments and the achievements I had been sharing were all real. It’s just that my personality type doesn’t allow me to see that picture. Instead I focus on what I am not achieving, and on how how far I still have to go before I’m satisfied.

  • Jennie February 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Jenna, thank you. I’m in my mid-thirties, a (relatively new) mom, a designer and the bread winner (my husband is a baker/bakery owner, too!). I’ve been having many of the same thoughts, and feeling a little isolated about it all. Try working from home and reading the latest issues of HOW magazine which seem to focus constantly on the bright, new 20-something-year-old designers who are going to change the world. Where are the 40-year-old ones??? Where am I going with my career? Will I still be able to support my family when I’m 50, doing what I do now? Does it even matter, so long as I’m happy NOW? Sigh….

  • Annie February 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Sorry my comment was so long! What I also meant to say was: thanks for always being so honest on this blog, it’s rare and inspiring, and it helps!

  • Sally B February 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    I think you defined being content and being successful in one wonderfully simple sentence in your post…
    “Personally, I can’t think of living my life any other way.”

  • Erin February 13, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Hi Jenna, Thanks for this post! It’s so hard to be both content and driven. Is that even possible?

  • gail February 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I think it’s human nature to be discontent, our speciality brand of suffering, as in the first noble truth. Gratitude exists to challenge discontent, or balance it. Neither has much to do with success. To me, now almost 60, success is the result of having created meaning for ourselves–all the little determinations of what really matters to us and what we do about it, when added up create meaning, which in turn defines success. It can be very subtle, something others might never even notice. Or become obvious over time such as when your grown daughters still want to hang out with you, still value your company.

    Sometimes I think that almost everyone in NYC cannot help but feel inadequate–there’s so much to compare, and so much that’s excellent, even beyond measure! I think merely being able to keep a home and family together in NYC is one measure of success. Being able to earn enough to survive there is amazing.

  • laura [prismera] February 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Things I think about all the time. I think it’s possible to be content with aspects of your life but also be striving for more or what seems to be better.

    Also, I think those who comment that way read too many “life is awesome and perfect” blogs. Appreciate reality, people.

  • Josephine February 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Jenna, this is a very eloquent post. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and nothing I’ve read or seen here suggests to me that you’re ungrateful for what’s in your life – quite the opposite actually.

    I’m not sure what else to say in response, except that I hope you always find a peace in the decisions you make in life.

  • Tim McMurdo February 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Here in Ohio, they are called Beauty Berries.

    And… thank you. You inspire.

  • Kimi February 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    To me it sounds like you are looking at all the right things hard in the face. Thank you for sharing that hard look…

    I once had this conversation with a friend about what someone should be striving for—in that case, what a mutual friend who was fairly messed up should be striving for. I said, “Well, happiness, right?” And he kinda shrugged and said, “I think he should be striving to find his path”. Man, did I feel like a dum-dum. Happiness, contentment, success… they start to sound very terminal when someone trumps you with the word “path”.

  • Jenn February 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    thank you for this post

  • Meghann Chapman February 13, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Your timing couldn’t have been better. I have been thinking for a while about writing on this very subject. It is one that plagues me. I’m one of those that just can’t seem to stop looking forward to another project, another improvement, another step towards more.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    p.s. I have been reading your blog for several months, and have not once walked away with a negative thought about your opinons, thoughts or actions. Some people just like to pick at anything they can.

  • Kate365til30 February 13, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Jenna I loved this post- so honest. I too struggle with many of these questions, fears and thoughts. It was the reason I started my project 365 til 30…I wanted to explore these themes and find out what truly made me happy. I think it’s a never-ending process as we age and I think the answer changes as we evolve.
    Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  • katie//salt+pine February 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    My 40th is a few months away and that milestone really has me contemplating definitions of success and contentment. Your post resonates with me because I have the same feelings about those definitions and am finding that a lot of people just don’t think in the same terms. So thank you for helping me feel that I’m not alone!

  • Yin February 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Two thumbs up. Great post.

  • christina February 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    jenna, thanks so much for your posts; you have a true gift with words. i’m 25 years old and find your honesty profound and very relatable. thank you.

  • Mo February 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Lovely, brave post Jenna. I whole heartedly agree, but for me the challenge is balancing my drive & curiosity with my feelings of being content & happy. Thanks.

  • heather February 14, 2012 at 1:15 am

    Hi Jenna,
    I feel like you are talking about a restlessness rather then being discontent. I find that I get restless and ask for change to happen in my life around milestone birthdays- I want to make sure that what I’m doing counts the older I get. It’s not a negative thing at all, although I get that some people can feel critical of it sounding ungrateful about what one might have. I think a restless spirit strives and asks for more because without this kind of goal or vision, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point. I appreciate what gail wrote about needing to find meaning in the things that we do the older we get. I truly do think that meaning has to be found and evaluated- sure beats complacency!
    Wonderful post!

  • chai ling February 14, 2012 at 2:07 am

    “defining success is a very personal thing for each and every one of us” I couldn’t agree more. Jenna, I may not know you in person but have been following Sweet Fine Day happily since 2 years ago, as a young lady turning 30 next Spring, I admire you a lot.

  • Anna February 14, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Thank you Jenna! I too am constantly restless and my husband tires of my new ideas and plans (*he rolls eyes* ‘oh what will it be next?’), and sometimes he misinterprets my discontentment as a problem that needs to be solved. I recently had to explain to him that I’m not unhappy — in fact I’m probably the happiest I’ve been in my life, and I feel extremely blessed… But I need to plan, I need things to aim towards and … and, for me, I am just a dreamer and my life would be dull without dreams to get carried away with (even if they don’t become reality). My husband is so sure of himself and I find myself apologising for the way I am … but actually it’s nothing to apologise for. We are good for one another. Without me pushing him there are so many adventures we wouldn’t have had, so much we wouldn’t have achieved in our 20s.

  • Eva-Lotta February 14, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Hi Jenna, Thank you for this post. My husband said to me recently that he sometimes feels like I very rarely enjoy the current moment, as I’m always thinking about the next big thing. At first I reacted strongly, saying that of course I know how to enjoy it, I just always want to do more and better, what’s wrong with that…
    But reflecting on it, I think that I never realized how it affects him, how it maybe makes him feel that he is failing to make me happy, since I’m always in search of something.
    It’s not true at all and I realize that I need to make more effort to let him know that I actually do enjoy our life and I’m happy every day (not all day every day like a lunatic, but every day).

  • mirna February 14, 2012 at 8:02 am

    I’m happy to read these words because i’m also 40 and wondering the same, asking to myself the same things .And sometimes i feel very alone because most of my friends have a job and here, in France , it’s not so well seen to raise children , it makes me feel like an old fashioned woman.
    So thank you for your thoughts !
    Have a good day Jenna .

  • Lauren S February 14, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Love that you pointed out that it’s the motivated that do well – I know many people who are smarter/more talented/etc., but refuse to create new dreams and achieve them. Don’t settle! You should have a blog when you are 90 to tell us all your many life stories. Who wants to be 90 and wish s/he had done more?

  • Samantha February 14, 2012 at 8:46 am

    I’ve been kicking these ideas around in my head lately, too. Thing #2 your music professor told you – that has been such a hard lesson for me to learn over the past couple of years. I’ve been doing what I do for so long, and to see newcomers seemingly breeze right into the success I’ve been quietly working towards for years, well, it’s not easy. So I’ve been trying to redefine what it means for me to be successful and content. Not there yet, but I’m closer than I used to be!

    Also, it really makes me angry when you get scolding comments about how you should be feeling or thinking. People need to realize that a blog isn’t 100% of a person’s thoughts or feelings, just the ones that have risen to the top of mind recently.

    Anyway, thank you for such an honest post.

  • Sophia February 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Jenna, your words resonated within me even if we may be at completely different paths on our lives. You, who have achieved success and who seeks more, and I who is struggling to find what it is I wish to succeed in and how I would even define such a strong word. Your beautiful site has always inspired me but never more so than with this post. I thank you for your words and for being a person I look up to, and for giving me a small peace when I realised that we are not all so different after all.

  • lulu February 14, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Thank you for a very thoughtful blog and for always keeping your comment section open. Accepting criticism is a very brave thing to do and you are one brave blooger.

  • Kim February 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    The reason why I love your blog is because you sound like a real person. I like that you express self-doubt and frustration and worry because that’s what people do. That’s what I do. I visit your blog to temper the saccharin sweetness of other blogs that I love for their content, but proclaim a constant life-is-grand-and-everyone-in-my-life-is-perfect-and-I-wake-up-to-sunshine-every-day sentiment. Please don’t change the character of your blog in order to quell the naysayers. Thanks for blogging.

  • Angela February 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I read blogs mostly for inspiration, and I have a small list of the ones I like to visit almost daily. Yours is one of those and I always look forward to reading your posts – it is refreshing to know that someone out there shares similar sentiments and is willing to share them with strangers. To me, that’s what a blog is – a personal online journal that you’re inviting others to read. So thanks for taking the time to share and keep up the great posts 🙂

  • Renita February 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    You take the ‘right’ risks … how else would be able to acheive? You put your money where your mouth is and I really appreciate that … there are so many ‘Forever Lazy’s’ in this world. If you are helping, get out of the way.

  • Renita February 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    I meant – if you aren’t helping … move out of the way …. you know what I mean

  • Lauren February 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Really love this. Thank you for continuing to post your honest thoughts and insights.

  • Sora February 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    When you launched the Mixed Race Project, I thought “Wow, there she goes again, realizing a new venture that marries her love of photography and her talent for storytelling.” Brilliant! I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to aspire to be more, to create more, to do more. Being grateful for the day-to-day, that is hard work too. As a mother, I know I try hard to be happy and content with what each day brings and the time I have with my little ladies while they are young. But we can’t always stay in the micro…we need to look at the big picture too and I think that bring us joy and a renewed energy to look forward to the future and what it can bring. Thanks for another great post. Obviously, it has resonated with a lot of people (not just me!).

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