Owning your success

An interesting thing happened in the last few weeks. I’m finally becoming comfortable with my own success, to the point where I was able to my husband last night, without caveats or apologies, “I have been very successful.”

As I’m writing this, I notice that I’m still not quite comfortable saying, “I am a success”—though by most measures I am. To me, the present tense and noun form imply that I’m done setting and working towards new goals, which is certainly not the case. In some respects, I feel like my career is just getting going.

Still, I believe I’m justified at looking at my accomplishments and feeling proud, satisfied, and successful.

To understand what a breakthrough this is, you should know that I come from a family of Irish lapsed Catholics where guilt was a persistent subtext. Some kids write Christmas lists with all the toys they want. In my family it was strongly implied that to expect gifts at all was presumptuous and greedy and that when gifts inevitably came, we were supposed to act surprised and effusively grateful.

Of course it’s better to be grateful for gifts than to expect them as one’s due. (For the record, Christmas lists still seem greedy to me.) But the corollary of this, at least in my case, is that I’ve always been uncomfortable with my own gifts and abilities and unwilling to take credit for my successes.

A case in point: when I was in my early 30s, I was working toward a black belt in kung-fu. Our school ran a national tournament every year with competitions in forms, weapons, and sparring and we were all expected to take part. Sparring was something I always struggled with, but I won my group by executing a spinning back kick for a crucial point. After the tournament, my husband congratulated me on a great win—I remember his face, beaming with pride. Instead of agreeing with him or saying thank you, I complained that there had only been four women in my group, so it wasn’t much of a victory. His retort has stuck with me ever since: “How many people would you have to beat before you felt like you’d really won?”

He was right of course. There wasn’t anyone else to beat—this was a national tournament, and everyone who was qualified and interested in competing was there.

I’ve tried to keep this lesson in mind ever since, but it’s been difficult. As soon as I master something or become comfortable with it, I devalue it because it’s easy—and immediately seek out the next challenge or hurdle. As a result, I seldom slow down enough to savor success and look at how far I’ve come.

I think that has finally changed. Maybe it’s because I’m slowing down as I get older. Maybe it’s because even I can’t keep making excuses for why my successes aren’t “real” successes.

But the real gift is that by owning my success, I’m can see that it’s time to give something back—to mentor and help others succeed as well.

The UX community talks a lot about mentoring, but most designers want to be mentored rather than mentor someone else. I think the issue is many of us are uncomfortable with our success or don’t recognize it as such, and therefore don’t feel qualified to mentor.

So I put it to you: What will it take for you to feel successful?