What If I Never Do Anything Prolific?
What If I’m Never “Successful”?
There’s a line from Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, The Summer Day, that I’ve always loved: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”
What do I plan to do? A lot.
For one, it’s been expected of me. I was born in a small New Jersey town to religious parents who practiced Jainism—one of the world’s oldest religions focused on nirvana, nonviolence (ahimsa), and non-attachment (aparigaha). At the exact time of my birth, a new Jain temple opened 30 miles from our home. The space had reportedly been prophesied by Guruji, essentially the Jain equivalent of a saint.
This overlap of events, my birth and this grand opening, was the most telling fortune my family could imagine. It was an auspicious sign, roughly translating to your daughter is destined to succeed.
I became an overachiever, a semi-gifted kid with Type A habits (you know, like this meme), working hard to make that vision of success my reality. Success wasn’t only expected of me, but I wanted it; I relished in the idea of “making it big,” which at the time, meant being top of my class and earning acceptance into top-tier universities.
But when I went into the real world, no particular place was impressed with my resume or achievements, much less my aspirations for success. Flailing to find any entry-level nonprofit job I could, I was just another fish in a sea of graduates. I eventually found a role, but after a few years in the social impact space, I decided to address my itch of starting my own business. I enrolled in a graduate-level program focused on social entrepreneurship, excelling there too.
When I graduated, I planned to start my own company as a freelancer. I’d scale and be my own boss and work on my own hours. The six-figure revenue? The seniority and title? The flexibility to work whenever, wherever? I’d finally have it all—I’d finally make it big.
Yet, once again, when it came time to spread my proverbial wings, I flailed. I could barely make ends meet and so I eventually went back to a salaried role. The cycle repeated more than once. I ended up back as a proverbial cog in the machine once again.
What does it mean when your successes aren’t at the scale you imagined?
I think about this often, as though my entrepreneurial itch is a scratch I’ll never quite be able to reach. I then find myself in a place of self-doubt and self-flagellation: If so many others can find scalable success and be their own boss, why haven’t you?
But I try to remember that negative self-talk doesn’t serve me or my dreams.
Instead, I take a beat and attempt to talk to myself like I would my best friend Sarah. I’d never let her believe the negative comments I’m saying, so why should I allow it for myself?
I also question if traditional “success” is worth pursuing. What do I love most about myself outside of my career or professional accomplishments? I’m in a loving, equal relationship; I’m a great pet-parent, friend, sister, and daughter; I’m thoughtful and compassionate and a good listener. No career fail (or win!) can take those statements away from me.
Finally, I reconsider my idea of success and its origins. We navigate the world, introducing ourselves by our jobs or by asking, “So, what do you do?” A capitalist society tells us our worth is based on our productivity. Of course we’re meant to feel like CEO-level success is the goal. And that’s been re-emphasized to me simply based on the time I was born. It was a factor I had no control of, but it ended up controlling others’ expectations of me.
Nowadays though, I’ve refined my vision of success to better fit with who I am, keeping in mind what feels most aligned with my values. I’ve also learned that my aims for “making it” weren’t only about prestige or a six-figure salary, though that’s a big part of it, too. (Why are women made to feel guilty for wanting these?) And just because I’m learning to reframe my idea of success, doesn’t mean that I no longer want it.
But rather than only celebrating when I reach a certain milestone, I’m taking time to honor the smaller wins—and learning that they’re not so small, either. Each step leads me closer to my vision for my life, and that’s worth celebrating, too.
Because alongside the traditional career wins, “making it” also means obtaining what I actually want in life: security, stability, access to hobbies I love like travel, care for my loved ones, a cozy home. Those are variables I care about—and ones I technically already have.
That excerpt from The Summer Day about our “wild and precious life”? It’s a great one, popular for a reason. But we never see the earlier lines, which read: “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
Oliver wasn’t telling us to live our biggest, most aspirational lives; she was reminding us to slow down, to see the beauty in the everyday, to be present and observant, and to focus on what’s most worthwhile—because life is fleeting.
Now, I’m not so focused about “making it” as I am about making a life. One that will have its career highs and lows, successes and failures, but one most centered around the people, places, and things I love. And that will be prolific enough for me.
Henah Velez (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She holds a Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and is a proud Rutgers grad. Originally from NJ, Henah’s now in Santa Barbara, CA, where she loves shopping small, hanging with her pets, or traveling. Say hi on Instagram!