Lately, this question comes up often in conversations. Mostly prompted by me because I have been feeling… adrift.
Like many others, I spent my adulthood chasing one goal after another. On and on, I climbed a ladder that kept spawning new rungs, assuming I would reach an eventual summit. Then 2020 happened. In my case, 2020 felt like an unwanted sequel to 2017, which was the year my life was interrupted by cancer.
Back in 2017, I somehow managed through the treatments and as my hair started to grow back, I returned to work, where I stepped into my dream role as a beauty editor. Later that year, I got engaged. On the outside, it looked like I was now “thriving” after a season of illness. At times, it felt that way. But I also had a body I no longer recognized, marred by scars and scorched skin. I felt an ever present pain where a part of my collarbone no longer existed and an equally present awareness of my mortality that made me weary.
Still, I powered on the way I always had, until my cancer returned during the height of the pandemic. As I recovered from yet another surgery, I realized just how tired I was from all the years of striving toward fulfillment. I wanted more ease in my days, more joy.
So, at the start of this year, I signed up for a dance class.
Growing up, I had always loved dancing, but I stopped after high school because — get this — I felt like there was no longer time for such frivolity. Decades later, I’ve returned to the mirror-lined studios. Only now, I’m the oldest person there (apart from the instructor, who’s as limber as her 20-something-year-old students). Then there’s me: 34, with a body that’s stiff from scar tissue and soft from years spent hunched over a laptop.
Yet, as I stumble through steps, I move in ways I haven’t since I was a kid. The relentless ticker of to-dos in my mind disappears. And when I walk out of the studio, I feel a warm satisfaction throughout my body. I feel, by all accounts, successful.
Driving home one night with my windows cracked and the breeze cool against my sweaty skin, I came to a definition of success that feels true to me: Success is less about reaching specific milestones and more about that specific feeling you get when you’re doing something that brings you back to yourself.
Though it’s not as easy to quantify as a salary or the square footage of a home, I’m finding that this definition is more generous and generative; it’s something that you alone can dictate. There are no gatekeepers or time constraints, nor is there an end point. I believe that living this way — staying connected to yourself and your surroundings in consistent, everyday ways — brings you to a life that feels successful, even triumphant.
You know the beloved Mary Oliver poem, in which she asks “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It turns out the poem isn’t about ambitions or milestones, but instead finding joy from watching a grasshopper in a field. “Pay attention,” she writes. Find your field.
I’d love to know: How do you define success these days?
Jenny Jin is a beauty editor, writer and on-air expert based in Los Angeles. She also shared her week of outfits and breakup story with us. Find her on Instagram @jyjin, where she will happily reply to any DMs regarding life, sunscreen and K-pop sensation, BTS.
(Photo by Kayla Johnson/Stocksy.)