How Do You Define Success?

How Do You Define Success?

I was sitting on an airplane a couple years ago on my way home from visiting a friend in Phoenix. This friend had recently lost her husband in a motorcycle accident leaving her with two teenage children and a small hobby farm requiring a huge amount of work. I was there to help and support her as she navigated parenting, working full time and managing the daily needs of the animals, all while working her way through the grieving process.

Her husband was only 42 when he died and he was the center of that family. He was the glue.

After a week of sorting through his clothes (because she couldn’t bring herself to do it) I was struck by how we measure a life well lived. With every shirt, ball cap or bullet proof vest, my friend would recount the moments these articles brought to mind. You see, he was a police officer and sudden death was part of the collective consciousness of this family. You lived knowing, perhaps only subconsciously, that danger was part of the deal. It goes with the job as they say.

Shortly after, I was on an airplane coming home to Canada, when the gentleman next to me asked what brought us to the United States. I explained we were visiting friends and I pointed to the 2 of our 3 sons that were travelling with me. He leaned forward and asked my boys the typical question, “you guys are missing school?”. To which my boys replied, “we’re homeschooled”.

This always sparks a conversation about the education system and our choices. I’ve had the conversation many times, but this gentleman was clearly a business man and he had explained that he was raised in the US school system. Without being rude he begin quizzing me on what and how I taught my boys to ensure they could compete? He asked how was I ensuring they were successful?

Usually I go on my well rehearsed monologue about schools and failure rates and how universities, especially Ivy League institutions, love homeschoolers. I even have stats on that.

But this time I was still quite overwhelmed with the grieving family I left behind and answered his question with a question,

“First let me ask you a question, how do you define success”?

This caught him off guard. He looked at me for a very long time (a bit awkwardly to be honest) but it was clear I struck a cord.

But before I tell you the rest of the conversation I want you to think about it for a minute. In part because you likely won’t listen to the rest of the story because you’re already thinking about it. You’re making a list. You’re adding and subtracting to that list as new versions of your child’s future flash before your eyes, and ultimately taking stock of your own life. All those external markers come to mind to create a definition of success.

How do you define success?

The dictionary defines success as:


  1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.
  2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.
  3. a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors

To be honest I’m not fond of that definition but it is the definition nonetheless. I have my own, as you have yours, but I started with what I want for my children. I want them to be happy and healthy. Don’t we all want that?

Reflecting on that, I realize it is more of a hope, but not how I would define success. It is not how I define success in myself, so while my children are happy and healthy, I believe, in part because they are homeschooled, it contributes little in the way of laying a foundation for their future. Philosophically many have expanded the definition of success that ‘isn’t about making money or professional accolades’. Warren Buffet could be considered successful and is quoted as saying ‘it isn’t about the money’.

So what did the businessman next to me on the plane have to say?

First he said that no one had ever asked him that before. In fact I learned he was quite professionally successful, owned his own company and had more money than he needed. But he was confident the end game (essentially where he was at now) wasn’t what he would define as his success. It was the journey he travelled to get there.

This idea, that it’s the journey not the end that defines success, has likely sparked another list in your mind. I had the same notion as the businessman and it changed my list.

So I’ll ask again, what experiences have you had that have laid a foundation for success? And are you sure you are choosing an education for your child that sets them up for success? Especially if the ‘journey’ is part of your definition.

He had an interesting list of life experiences that laid the foundation for his success. And as he talked through them with me he pointed regularly to where some aspects of the education he had actually interfered with, if not downright sabotaged, his success. We both agreed that “education” was a relative term and came in many shapes and sizes.

However, we were still lacking a definition for success (I hadn’t given him mine yet) and being an entrepreneur, he had some thoughts on a few key skills he thought were better learned through suffering. I’m not kidding. He was in his 60s and had a life filled with certain hardships as most of that generation will tell you. I explained that no, my kids don’t have to walk uphill both ways in -40 degrees Celsius for 5 miles to get to school. Would he choose to do that again?

Did it build those ‘skills’ he was talking about or did it just suck?

He agreed that my word ‘sucked’ summed it up but felt that overcoming adversity was key for him and it was hard to build that in. I agreed forced hardship was not ideal.

We began to create the list together and there were moments my boys (11 and 13 at the time) were interjecting their thoughts and perspectives. We got to a point where we were very close to a tangible definition of success. Think back to your list and see if they match up:

  1. You can provide for yourself first. Yep, first on both our lists was self sufficient. And by this we both meant financially able to support oneself.
  2. You can stand on your own two feet. Second was independence. Although we are from different generations we agreed that the moment we stopped relying on our parents for ‘living’ we had become independent. This was not to say emotionally we weren’t still fully interdependent and that it is a healthy thing. Our independence improves our relationships with our parents. He fully agreed family was key and cited his relationship with his parents and their support, as far more important than anything he learned in school. He is close to his own children and still sees his own parents weekly.
  3. You work hard. And you work harder when you experience failure. Therefore the third point we’d define for success is perseverance. My grandparents called this ‘sticktoitiveness’. It is also what gives you the internal bravery to try things that scare you.
  4. You give back to your community. Interesting right? I had it on a different list; it was on my how-to-be-a-good-person list. I teach this skill through a lot of different mechanisms in my homeschooling and the businessman said it was a key aspect of his success. He explained that although he made a lot of money, the ‘healthy and happy’ part of my hope for my children comes to him when he gives back to those that propped him up when he started his path. Some of those are youth programs and some are in fact schools that provided him the opportunity to learn, and fail. The failing with a safety net was a key part of his journey.

I liked our list. I joked that I should write it down. But I didn’t get off that easy. He reiterated his question. “How are you in your homeschooling ensuring they build the necessary skills to be successful”?

I was in the hot seat now and I took a moment to gather my thoughts. I’m very confident in our choice, but I didn’t want to use the typically noted failures of the average school system as the way I know they’ll be successful. They won’t just be successful because they didn’t go to school. That’s ridiculous.

My response surprised the both of us.

I know my children will be successful because I allow them to choose. For everything. They choose what to learn, what to say, where to go, whether or not to participate and ultimately how to engage with their world as it is presented to them.

Autonomy is a powerful feeling for any human being and when choice is removed from your life it creates feelings of panic, scarcity, anxiety, competition and a down right lack of interest with the outcome.

You perform for recognition not the love of the work, you behave for fear of punishment and you loath failure. You stop trying and simply show up.

I’m not saying schooled children are not autonomous. I certainly was afforded all the opportunities I could want for in the public system. I am, by my definition, successful. I feel however it was in spite of the education I received because I wasn’t ready for the opportunities when they were presented to me. I was not a successful high school graduate that’s for sure. I had to work really hard to overcome marginal grades and abysmal work ethic (for school work that is). Including failing my first semester of college after a forced year off due to low grades and entering as a mature student lacking the prerequisites. I was however already self-sufficient and independent living on my own, working and paying for school myself. So I fought hard to get back into university and learn how to learn. I was very motivated to get a degree and not with any pressure from anyone else. In fact my parents thought I was already successful because I could work and ‘adult’ without support from them.

From the definition the businessman and I listed above I was successful! However that was not MY definition of success for myself. Completing high school, finding a job that could support me and living independently was not success to me.

And therein lies the point I’m making.

When the choice is yours to make, once you make it, the motivation to be successful comes not from external pressure or rewards. I homeschool because I can offer my children that autonomy from the start and build their sense of self advocacy. We tell them: do it if you want to, but do it well or move on. Failure is par for the course and choice is built into every moment of their lives. And most importantly we embrace their interests regardless of the typical perceived value; academic or not, usable skill or not. Trust me, some of the things they are interested in are positively weird.

Freedom to Choose

Building choice into the approach allows for certain skills to develop. These include perseverance, independence, critical thinking, resilience and above all, creativity. Creative thinking is a skill that comes from not only imagining the possibilities, but seeing the outcome blossom without the prompt to try in the first place.

Inside creativity lies innovation and they face an unknown future with limitless possibilities we can’t even imagine. Innovation will be key.

If they spend their day being told to create a picture, a story or even a computer game, for most children nothing creative will be born, only the required outcome to get the grade. But if they spend their day with the freedom to create, were they inclined to do so, the outcome is spectacular! Today may or may not be a creative day.

So I proposed – actually I trust – they will be successful because they are free. Life places enough boundaries that we don’t feel ‘preparing them for all their possible futures’ is healthy or a life well lived. It certainly can make school a bit of a bore.

Wait! Before anyone comments, yes they have boundaries and rules. They don’t have free reign to be rude or inconsiderate. Bathing is mandatory, chew with your mouth closed, hold the door open for others…we place kindness in high regard. We also behave the way we expect them to behave.

Okay so back to my businessman on the plane.

He asked a couple questions, talked with the boys and then turned to me and put his hand on my hand, “I’m not sure about your approach, but from where I sit you are a successful mom because they are intelligent and thoughtful”. I laughed and thanked him. I’m sure he thought about us for a long time. I clearly still think about him.

If you were to ask me point blank “should everyone homeschool then”? I would say it doesn’t matter how you choose to educate your children, but I definitely would point out that success is not guaranteed because they have excellent grades and are accepted into a good school. I recommend you ask them how they define success for themselves and why. The why is important.

Will your child be successful?

It should go without saying that one of the most damaging things we can do as parents is to attach our personal definition of success to the successes of our children. Because they feel with every fiber of their being those unspoken expectations and the resulting disappointment when they don’t measure up.

A successful child will be one that is proud of themselves for attempting goals they have chosen, failed at, tried again and finally achieved. The more choice you can build into their lives, the more resilient they will be when met with failure. Because they have ownership of the outcome and their own personal definition of success.


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