Write your own success story: changing your definition of success

“I’ve often said that I wish people could realize all their dreams and wealth and fame so that they can see it’s not where you are going to find your sense of completion. I can tell you from experience the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is because everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart.” – Jim Carrey

I used to get so caught up in numbers. My success was defined in social media status. My self worth was how many followers I had. My talent was how many comments a photo received. If a photo didn’t do well, I wasn’t good enough. My work wasn’t good enough. From talking with the generations under me, this is the shifting psychology caused by social media. A whole life’s worth defined by how many Instagram followers a person has. Value and importance placed upon numbers and not kindness, connection, and love. It was a life of always chasing never resting. I never had time to realize and reflect on the real triumphs I was achieving every day because I was too concerned with one-upping my last accomplishment knowing that each success might be the highest point in which my career will ever get. And in that feeling the shame and anxiety in that thought. I was never satisfied and nothing was enough. Until I changed my definition of what success is. Success is not always big clients, big jobs, and big paychecks and if you define yourself by that alone you’ll always be disappointed chasing the next big thing. Success is not the number of internet strangers you have collected. It is not the amount of money you make. It is not defined by the successes of other people.

Photo by Vanessa Paxton

Photo by Vanessa Paxton

I’ve been learning to shift my success into moments and in that, embracing the idea of gratefulness. This year I was bit by a tick I never saw and got really sick. As a chronic sufferer of migraines, I didn’t recognize the significance of a headache that refused to let up for a month. I didn’t recognize the flu-like symptoms, the fevers, the fatigue. The moment I knew there was something seriously wrong was when my fingertips started hurting, as fingertips shouldn’t hurt. If you’ve never seen Lyme disease, it feels a bit like you happened to catch the flu on the same week you’ve broken every bone in your body. And of course as most things go, the timing was impeccably awful sitting on the cusp of needing to sell all my possessions, give up my jobs and my home to dedicate myself to a four month road trip and workshop tour. I have never felt exhausted like that. I remember my mom and step dad graciously driving the three hours from Maine to New Hampshire to paint my apartment for the showing that weekend because I could not psychically remove myself from the couch. I remember my sister running my errands and picking me up from doctors appointments and 1am ER visits and nursing me back to health. This is where I learned gratefulness. This is where I learned success is having the energy to sit up. This is where I learned success was being able to answer all of my emails or go to work or edit a photo. My Lyme was caught early enough that I’ve made a full recovery with no lingering side effects that I can see. Now months passed those four months of struggle I have a better understanding on what is important to me and how I want my life defined.

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I define my success in the present. Success is every email I get from someone I never met saying how they felt themselves in my photos. Success is someone saying my photo got them through the day. Success is meeting someone who started photography because they saw my photos and said to themselves, “You know, I can do that too.” Success is in the connection. It is the time spent with my mother and sister. It is somehow ending up in a cafe in a town I’ve never thought to be at an ungodly hour speaking with people I will never see again. It is 6am sunrises after camping on top of a mountain. It is being able to spend four months in the positive light of my best friends. It is the wonder of feeling so small in the Redwoods of California. It is watching the northern lights by a cabin near a lake in British Columbia. It is every hug. It is every kind word. It is every day I got out of bed and faced the world. And for every day I get of bed, I am grateful.

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Don’t let anyone assign your worth. Don’t define your worth based on the success of other people. You are as valuable and important as anyone else and you have your own journey. To quote the Dalai Lama, “Today think as you wake up, I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” I recently got this tattooed on myself as a reminder. You are worthy because you exist and as such, every day is a success.

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