Studies suggest that millennials are more focused than previous generations on achieving fame and wealth.
You can blame reality TV or a culture of celebrity worship, but the idea of equating success with material reward and status is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to pinpoint a culprit.
Maybe we’re all part of the problem.
What is Success?
I was at a party last week where the hosts had hired a neighbor’s granddaughter to play the violin. At just 14-years-old, she was already quite accomplished.
Not only is she a skilled musician, but she’s also recorded four CDs, raises money for breast cancer and was booked at three parties in the community in two days.
Yet the host introduced her by saying, “Someday she’s going to be a success.”
My immediate thought was, “She’s already a success.”
A Warped View
Now this was an off-hand remark, and I’m sure the host didn’t consider the girl in any way a failure, but words have power. And these words are emblematic of a warped and prevailing view of what constitutes success in our culture.
For many people, a musician is not a success unless she has a gold record, is a household name and performs on the Grammys.
In fact, most performers suffer from this perception. For a lot of my actor friends, their families will never quite appreciate what they do until they see them starring in a TV show. For writers, making the New York Times Bestseller list is the standard mark of true success.
Lawyers, Status and Money
What if we applied this thinking to other occupations?
- A lawyer is not successful unless she’s a US Supreme Court justice.
- A doctor is a failure unless he’s chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.
- A business executive hasn’t made it unless he’s CEO of a Fortune 100 company.
The reality is, the odds of this kind of “success” are infinitesimally small. Only a tiny fraction of a percent of people “make it big” in conventional terms.
Yet many lawyers, doctors and business people lead what most would agree are successful lives. They make a good living, they’re respected in their field, they contribute to their community.
A Different Measure
In the same way, many performers and artists enjoy what they would call success. They do work they find fulfilling for audiences who appreciate it. To say nothing of the other aspects of their lives that bring satisfaction.
Who knows what this 14-year-old girl will go on to? Maybe she’ll be the next Taylor Swift. Maybe she’ll work as a backup studio musician. Maybe she’ll pass on her gift to others through teaching.
Or perhaps she’ll pursue music as just a hobby, playing the occasional coffee shop gig for friends and family while pursuing a rewarding career in some other field.
Teach Your Millennials Well
Whatever she ends up doing, I hope she’ll measure success on her own terms, and resist the idea that anything short of wealth and fame equals failure.
As for us, turning around a culture that glorifies material success is a tall order, but each of us can be a little more thoughtful in how we define success and a little more careful in how we describe it.