“You’re not reaching your full potential. You should be a doctor instead.”

Success definition should include loving what you do every day

At the lowly age of 17, I started college. Although enrolled in nursing school, I was filled with uncertainty. And not uncertainty like, “Should I pursue engineering instead? Would performing arts be a better fit?” More like, “But everyone’s told me I should be a doctor.”

And it was true. My favorite teacher in high school had said, “But why are you going to nursing school? You’re not reaching your full potential. You should be a doctor instead.” Other adults I knew and respected had made similar comments.

Which, side note, is complete BS. Anyone who’s a nurse nowadays knows the field is no longer checking temps and passing meds. Nurses don’t get nearly enough credit for being the autonomous, critical thinking, life savers that they are.

But that’s actually besides the point.

What their comments were really doing were filling me with the traditional notions of what it means to be successful. Sure, it’s flattering that they thought I was smart and all. And should we push people to use their abilities to the fullest extent? Yes.

But it’s like no one is connecting the dots about rising rates of depression and anxiety.

I actually wrote a guest post for another blog on my experience with my own “depression” that you can read here. But to be perfectly honest, I attribute most of my unhappiness to my past jobs.

What does it mean to be successful?

First of all, before I answer this, you probably already know. Just think about it. Imagine someone who’s successful. What do they look like? What do they have?

This my image:

  • Lots of money
  • Big house
  • Summer homes
  • Fancy car
  • Well-groomed
  • Taking extravagant vacations
  • Attending dressy events
  • Being known and admired
  • Maybe throw in a boat for good measure
  • And a big smile plastered across their face

Cliche, yes. But a typical vision of success? Also yes.

And if we’re not already rich or famous, how do we get this?

By working our butts off in our careers. And by having the right career, of course. It’s all about the end-game. Work hard now so you can reap the benefits later.

None of this should sound new to you. It’s a message poured into the foundation of society.

Where the problem starts

Ever heard that money doesn’t buy happiness? Yeah, me too. Again, this is nothing new.

But at the same time it’s like we’re all in a money and prestige craze.

The high school reunion test

Don’t quite agree? Think about it this way.

Let’s pretend you’re going to your high school reunion. Or maybe you already have.

You run into a classmate who you haven’t stayed in touch with, but who’s opinion you care about.

They tell you they’re a lawyer now. What would you rather tell them you are?

  1. Doctor with your own practice
  2. Waiter/waitress at a restaurant
  3. Cashier at a grocery store

Society tells us we should pick doctor. But what you don’t see:

  1. Doctor with your own practice – but you hate the work and the pressure. You only got into it because you had a vague interest in science and people told you it was impressive.
  2. Wait tables at a restaurant – and you love it. The restaurant has such a great ambiance and you have a fun banter with the chefs in the back every day.
  3. Cashier at a grocery store – you couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Your coworkers are incredibly fun and you look forward to going to work every day.

Now of course not everyone will feel the same way about these jobs, but you get the point. You may want to tell your old classmate that you’re a prestigious doctor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re enjoying your life more. So who is actually successful here?

How to be successful in life

Back to my experience

I graduated college with the full intention of going back to school to become a nurse practitioner. That’s where the money (and prestige) lies in nursing nowadays. I also do love to challenge myself and thought I’d enjoy it.

Although I went into nursing to help people – not for the money – it actually paid pretty darn well as a new grad. Immediately I was paid far above the poverty line. After I was off orientation, I could even request additional shifts to keep raking in the cash.

I had a stable job, a roof over my head, and could afford the little luxuries while still sticking money in my savings.

But.

I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy my work, and since I really wanted my job to be my purpose in life (I wanted to help others and make a positive impact in the world), it crushed me. Work was overly stressful, left me uninspired, and quickly drained my passion. I dreaded it. I dreaded the way I spent most of my waking hours.

And as many of you know, I made a job change (still nursing!) after sticking out the first year. But, surprise surprise! I didn’t like that either. I had a stable career, regular paychecks, and benefits, but I was still so miserable. Enough so to drive me to my doctor and ask about antidepressants.

While I had quickly let go of my plan to be a nurse practitioner or doctor – what, more stress in a field I already didn’t like? No thanks! – I felt so stuck. If I kept going on this path, my everyday would look like this:

  • Wake up
  • Go to work
  • Come home
  • Exercise/cook dinner
  • Watch TV/ maybe see a friend or two
  • Go to bed

FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.

Or at least until I finally retired, but gah that’s like 40+ years away! I’d be living for retirement!

And that would be my life.

Sure, I would get a vacation sprinkled in maybe once a year, maybe get to see my family once or twice a year (Texas is a long way from Connecticut), and would save up enough at some point to move into a house, perhaps have a little family…

But I would hate what I do every day. And would feel stuck on a sucky little life merry-go-round.

No wonder everyone’s depressed.

Stop telling people to suck it up

One reaction I might get to this opinion is that we should all stop complaining because we’re adults and adults have to work. This is life! Life is hard. But you just need to be an adult and suck it up.

This could not be a more toxic thing to tell someone who is legitimately depressed because of their job.

I’ve mostly run into this view from other generations, often because they DID stick it out. They worked hard, busting their butts every day to provide for their families and themselves. They may not have liked it, but they sure as hell did it!

My response. I’m not telling you not to work. You have to make some sort of living or you won’t be able to afford housing, transportation, food, and other necessities.

But wouldn’t life be so much more enjoyable if you found something you loved to do every day? Or at least most days?

Many of us would still do just fine money-wise if we sought out another way to spend our everyday.

Side note: the last little side note I’d like to add is in regards to “paying your dues” or “working your way up.” If you don’t love what you’re doing every day but know that in the near future it will lead to your goals, then keep working at it! That’s different from what I’m talking about. I knew being a nurse practitioner wasn’t right for me and wasn’t happy with my personal “end goal” of being a floor nurse. I had nothing more I wanted to work towards. But if you know that the continued hustle will lead to your goals, by all means, keep going!

The new “success definition”

Sorry for this unhappy little picture I’m painting of society. And dude, if your job has challenges but they’re emotionally manageable and you’re doing just fine, then seriously, keep doing you!

But I’d like to challenge all of you to let go of the age-old definition of success.

Find something you’re not only passionate about, but something that continues to ignite that passion every day. It can and should be something that keeps pushing and challenging you, but doesn’t cause heaps of stress and anxiety. Something that makes getting out of your warm, comfy bed in the morning a little less awful. Who cares if others don’t think it’s prestigious.

At my high school reunion when asked what I do, I’m going to be the one saying, “I do something I LOVE every day!”

And that’s my definition of success.