It seems far too simple to write “we all want success.” But it’s true. We’re all pursuing success of various varieties and with a whole range of definitions of what that success might look like. There’s no final arbiter of a successful life, or some kind of single, ultimate list of the things that must be accomplished in order to count ourselves successful.
And yet, we tend to know success when we see it. And we also know it when it doesn’t quite turn out that way.
My first and primary thought on success is that you need to define it for yourself. There are some basic elements that most people would probably agree on: a level of comfort and security; a community and positive relationships; and meaningful activity that occupies enough of your time to make you feel happy and accomplished.
The details are yours, as is the decision to let some of these elements lapse for a time (for example, abandoning comfort and security for an adventure, or choosing to commit a certain period of your life to a job that severely cuts down on meaningful pursuits so you can achieve some other goal).
Since success is yours to define, make sure you pick a definition you actually like.
College students should probably maintain two models of success: one in the short-term (for their college life), and one for the long game that includes their lives after school.
The first week back at school is a really good time to think through what you hope for and need for the coming year, and to examine how your decisions now will impact your long-term goals and successes. I’m suspicious of New Year’s Resolutions—the middle of winter is a dreadful time to launch significant life changes and a disruptive point in the calendar to make decisions, particularly when you’re living on the school calendar. However, the start of a new school year is a great time to make some decisions about this coming academic year… and about what comes next.
A great place to start is asking yourself “what would it take to consider this academic year a success?” Make some lists (I really like lists—particularly if they’re a flexible combination of pie-in-the-sky and concrete plans).
Some examples of short-term goals:
- Learning something new
- Planning adventures with friends
- Being part of a group/activity/organization that interests you
- Reading things you love
- Being in touch with family/old friends
All of these are just examples, and none of these are lists I have accomplished flawlessly during an academic year. However, it’s all worth striving for and adventures worth having, and all short-term goals that could come together to make a successful academic year.
The key is that you define a successful year. When you’re thinking about a short-term set of goals, it could very well be that finding a mentor would be equally important to getting a certain grade. Or that planning adventures/focusing on sports/travel with friends might matter more than working a part-time job. Or that you’ll put a relationship in the backseat for now so that you can focus on an internship and writing your thesis.
Imagine what you want at the end of this semester, and at the end of this year. What will it take to make you feel proud, fulfilled, and happy in this coming year?
For most college students, it is difficult to explicitly name long-term success. There are so many factors and unanswered questions, and “a happy life” is a nebulous goal.
But it’s worth thinking about the kinds of things and life you hope for in the longer term. These can help inform your short-term priorities, as well as mapping your path through college and into the post-graduation years.
Here are some thoughts to start defining long-term success:
- How important is money to you? When you imagine success, do you picture nice possessions, a large house, and a certain kind of security and range of options? If so, it’s important to keep this in mind while choosing a career and building a resume.
- How important is intercultural dialogue and international travel? For business or personal growth, do you picture being able to move and communicate in a globalized world? If so, language study and early international travel and work experience will serve you well.
- Would you be willing to sacrifice some comforts for an artistic career? If you feel driven to pursue art, are you prepared to put in the work both to perfect your art and to run the business/take on less rewarding work to support your vocation? What can you do now to progress as an artist and prepare for the rest?
When thinking about long-term goals, there is always a combination of strategy and passion. Where do you feel called to go? Does your passion fit with other goals?
Depending on what you want in the long term, there are lots of steps you can take now to make this happen. The combination of your personal goals and visioning of what career success would look like means that your grades may matter more or less, your major may be of vital or secondary importance, and internships/jobs during school might be critical or optional.
There have been times in my life when this kind of life planning has seemed overwhelming and stressful. But at other times, it has felt freeing—like I was in charge of my destiny, and could take actions now that would put me on the path I want to travel.
I wish you all the best success in this coming year. May you take steps toward what will bring you joy—both for now and in the distant future!