In today’s career-driven society, it’s easy to think that your job is the most important thing about you. It’s the first question we hear when we’re meeting new people, the first thing that comes up at family dinners, the life phase we tend to stress about or harp on the most.
And of course, money is a huge factor. It’s often why you choose to do what you do in the first place. Money is the perceived result of hard work, of determination, of talent and value. Having money equates to having power. Having a high-profile career means you are successful. Being promoted means you are “on the right track.” Those are the rules we’ve made up about success. They are the yardsticks we use to measure our lives.
But here’s the thing: we have a choice about how to define success. We don’t have to associate our self-worth with our career, or derive our value from our income statements. We can choose to look at life differently. We can choose to assign value to different things. We can, quite literally, make up our own definitions of success.
I know this the same way I know pretty much everything: I learned it from my mother.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom since before my earliest memory. When my brother was diagnosed with autism at age two, she made it her personal mission to learn everything she could about the disorder and find ways to get him help. She did research, went to court, joined and ran support groups, and trained therapists to work with him on a daily basis. She wanted to be at home with him as much as possible, so she worked service jobs around my dad’s traditional work schedule to ensure that a parent was always present for me and my brother.
Before long, my other brother was born, and soon after that, my twin sisters. Then, my mom decided to be a foster parent; she spent her days caring for drug-dependent babies while also making herself available for my brother and the rest of my siblings.
Throughout my late childhood and young adulthood, my mother has not made any money. She’s never had a traditional career. And yet, she is one of the happiest, most sincerely joyful people I know. Simply put, she is fulfilled. If my mother can be happy and fulfilled without making money or climbing the corporate ladder, why do I feel like those things are required for my own happiness? My mother’s fulfillment has shown me that earnings and career advancement don’t have to be the standards I use to measure my life. Maybe I can choose something else for my happiness metric.
Before we go any further, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible amount of privilege at play in my upbringing. Not everyone can afford to stay home with their children. It’s not a viable financial option for many people, so my mother was incredibly fortunate to be able to make this choice to begin with. I know — and she knows — it’s not a choice she would have been able to make without the financial help and support from my father.
That said, regardless of whether or not you need or want to work outside the home, I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the people (often, mothers) who choose to no longer assign all their self-worth and success solely to their career paths. I only know that fulfillment and value are not correlated with earning money because I’ve seen it firsthand, in my mother’s life. By staying at home, my mother taught me so much about how I see the world. She taught me how to view myself in healthy proportion to family and marriage and money and career: I am not a byproduct of my job and my marriage and family; my job, marriage, and family are byproducts of me.
To say my mother isn’t powerful because she doesn’t make money would be a downright lie. It’s almost funny to think about, because my mother is the epitome of power. She literally nurses heroin-addicted babies back to health. She reunites families. She stays up all night with screaming infants. I think she’s got the self-value part covered: she owns the room. She is a force. Timid and weak she is not.
My mother’s life is rich, valuable, and important; she doesn’t have a traditional job that provides income. And the fact that all of those things can be true at once means that they are not mutually exclusive. You can have a life of meaning without having a career. You can feel fulfilled, important, and needed without bringing home a paycheck.
So, if you get to choose the yardstick to measure your life, how do you go about defining your values? Ask yourself: what’s important to YOU? How do you define success? If you couldn’t make any money or get the recognition that comes from a high-profile career, would you still be making the same choices about how you spend your time? Would you still be assigning the same value to your daily tasks, activities, and thoughts?
I’m not saying money isn’t important. Obviously, it is. But money won’t love you back. It’s up to you to figure out what makes a joyful life. And then, it’s up to you to go out and make it happen.
Jillian wants to live in a world where the coffee is bottomless and the sweatpants are mandatory. As a professional writer, she enjoys crafting copy that cuts through the bullshit of the everyday media. When she’s not being a word wizard, Jillian can be found hiking the trails with her husband and her slightly neurotic German Shepherd named Penny. To learn more about her work and her love of sweatpants, visit her website or find her on Twitter.
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