Christine Bernstein: Success


Success. We talk about success all the time, especially in school. Success is getting your assignments done. It is getting an A on a test. It is advancing to the next level. It is graduating from high school, college, kindergarten, or whatever. Success has been defined by income and status. If we see someone who has a nice car, a beautiful home, and a pretty girl, we think of success! But, what if….

What if that someone was deep in debt and their relationship was a battle?

What if those assignments turned in on time were done by parents or an older sibling?

What if graduation was just a ceremony you walked through, but you just scraped by and cheated a lot?

What if the A on that test was pure luck?

I have been wondering about success a lot lately. I keep hearing people talk about success. My kids are being told that their future success is dependent on being successful at turning in work. But is it?

I look at my own life and ask myself, “Am I successful?” 

I am not wealthy, and I struggle at times. I have a 17-year-old van with 250,000 miles on it, and I live in a small house with three kids and one bathroom. I can’t afford an expensive vacation. I have a BA in language and linguistics. I received good grades in school, but I wanted to get out of the house and go to college; therefore, I had an extrinsic motivator. I didn’t get a scholarship, and I waited tables to get through college, which took me forever to do.  And I enjoyed it. I traveled around Europe and North Africa with a backpack. I am doing the things I love doing, and I am constantly learning, growing, and following my passion. Do I qualify as successful?

By society’s standards, I am not that successful. I am marginally successful in that I am self-sufficient.

But I feel successful. I can take care of myself. I have a lot of joy in my life. I have love in my life. I am happy most days. I love myself, and I get to do things I love. I have great close friendships. I have fun. I get to go outside every day and be in nature. I get to sit down at a computer and write what I think and spout off my opinions. I do things I enjoy, and I feel good. I consider myself successful. I am successful by my standards and values. But am I successful by societal standards?

So, how do we measure success? 

Is it measured by grades? Educational level achieved? Income? How much stuff we have? How much we know? These are tangibles measures of success. Are there other measures of success?

I was recently talking with someone who was telling me how poorly he did in high school. He struggled with reading. He got help, but it never really sunk in. He told me he struggled in college and didn’t finish. He discovered a trade and loved it. As he worked hard in this trade, he learned new trades. He supported himself and made a life for himself. I asked him if he felt successful. He told me he had a home, was retired, and gets to golf every day. He smiles, laughs, and has fun, and he spends time with the people he loves. This man is full of joy. I have only seen him smile. He talks of his past with fondness and without regret. And he was voted to the New Mexico State Sports Hall of Fame for Golf.

I think he is successful.

As a parent, I have often pondered what I hope my kids will obtain in terms of success. And I realize that what I want the most for them is to follow their hearts, do what they love, be good to themselves and others, and figure out what their life is and follow it.

When it comes to school, I want to see success measured through individual goals and attaining those goals. Students with IEPs- Individual Learning Plans, set learning goals. As a teacher, I set a learning target. The district has standards linked to the curriculum. I think of the standards as obtainable measurable goals. Yet, I do not always see a student’s success measured by these standards. 

Hear me out.

I have been thinking this over for several years, but this past year of COVID life has given me time to think.  What we are measuring and how we are talking about success.?

I talk to kids often, and when I ask them about success, they go to grades first. When I talk with them further, I find that a lot of their self-measure is tied to grades. When I ask about grades and what they are based on, it is all about turning in work. Those three words – turning in work – mean a lot. 

Is turning in work success? Maybe for some. It is how a lot of our youth are measured. But what if? What if success was more about what you know, what you can create, WHO you are as a person? 

Success can be many things. It might be getting out of bed; for others, it might be making seven digits in a year. As a society, it is very tied to the numbers and material. 

I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean the other night, and a phrase struck me – the material has become immaterial. Why not? Why not say it doesn’t matter what you have, but it matters who you are? Think what an impact that could have?

Instead of what’s your GPA? Why not ask, “What did you learn this week?” Or “What did you create or make?” And “How do you feel about what you do, who you are, what you like?” 

Instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, how about- “What do you love doing? What are interests you?

Instead of measuring our youth through their academic accomplishments only, why not give them opportunities to share what they see as their successes? Help them see themselves as contributors, creators, knowledgeable, and curious.

If we can begin to redefine success in terms of who a person is as a contributing member of society, then I think we would see a lot of well-being in our world. I feel good about my successes because I measure those against myself. If I were to measure myself against a colleague or a friend, I might not feel the same way. 

We want our kids to feel good about school and what they are doing every day. If we begin to change the language about how we define success, we foster that growth mindset, our youth’s social and emotional well-being. 

My daughter was told that unless she does her work, works harder, and turns in her assignments, she won’t be successful later on down the road. She was told that the work she does today will impact her future. She responded with, “I am only in 8th grade, and I want to be happy now.”

Why do we insist that kids need to be miserable to be successful? I do not doubt that my daughter will be successful in whatever way that is important to her. She will be a good person with solid character and self-love. And whatever she chooses to do, she will do it well. 

My kids failed school this year. But I think they are successful because they learned things about themselves. They discovered and realized what matters to them and how they genuinely function in the face of difficult times. They learned what they love and what is not essential. They formed ideas, opinions and had meaningful discussions. 

This year has been a successful year for me, but only because I chose to redefine what success means this year.

Note: The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed in this column are mine only and not representative of anyone in the community, school district, or school board.