The Narrow Definition of Success
Updated: Feb 7
The Illusion of Thriving
What is your definition of success? And more importantly, how does your definition of success affect the next generations, whether you are a parent, an educator, a family member, or a friend ? Like many, throughout my childhood I was led to believe that success could be measurable — through education, through professional and personal experiences, and through monetary compensation.
Moving around and adjusting to various local and international schools, I was a poster child of a ‘successful’ Third Culture Kid (TCK)¹, even though at the time I didn’t even know what a TCK was.
While coping with the challenges of being a teenager, I changed secondary schools three times before I graduated, but still ‘thrived’. I made friends wherever I went, performed well academically, participated in various extracurriculars, and was actively engaged in planning a ‘successful’ future and applying to colleges in the USA. And even though I didn’t end up being accepted into my ‘dream’ school, I was thrilled to take off for the University of Vermont in the fall of 1995.
Until, one day, during my freshman year, I wasn’t okay. Not okay at all.
My roommates and classmates who didn’t know me well (yet), didn’t quite know what to do with this girl from Europe who didn’t seem to be adjusting so well. My friends from ‘back home’ were going through their own trials and tribulations.
As my sense of loneliness amplified with each passing day, I would re-read letters from dear friends trying to hold on to the friendships I missed. It was 1995, international phone calls were ridiculously expensive and emailing between friends was non-existent.
My parents tried to support me from afar and were of split minds between me needing a grand kick in the butt or some kind of counseling. The latter was something I had very negative association with at the time and I felt a deep shame about the mere consideration.
Meanwhile, my anxiety increased and I was panicking more and more because I had no idea what was happening to me. Why wasn’t I okay? Why wasn’t I loving my freshman year in the place where I had dreamed of going to university? Why wasn’t I reaping all the benefits that this privileged life was offering?
In hindsight, the lack of professional counseling was frightful, and it’s very encouraging that there are so many more support options offered within the international and tertiary education systems today, as the need for support is only growing.²
Although I had nailed adjusting everywhere with my family’s love and support, once I left the comfort of that nest, I had no idea who I was. I desperately wanted to ‘go home’, but didn’t know where that was. I now know that meant I just wanted to belong.
My entire childhood and early adulthood I had been so busy fitting in everywhere that I never really belonged anywhere. Where were my roots and what did that even mean?
Why is it important that we address the narrow definition of success?
In my work as an International Education and Transitions Consultant today, I find that many children (and adults) are still feeling pressured by a narrow definition of success, either coming at them from their parents and/or their school, culture and society.
If I learned anything throughout the last 20 years of working in education and transition-care, it’s that stories connect us. By sharing my story, I encourage parents, and particularly parents of TCKs (and their educators, family members and friends), to take note, pause and reflect.
Perhaps my story, and yours, can help another young TCK shape their own definition of success. We can only expect our students and children to communicate their own vulnerabilities when the adults around them do the same.
A recent CIS Briefing on Cross-Cultural Transitions into Higher Education reiterates a need to offer parents more resources about the pressures students feel and fear of “choosing the wrong path”.
In his current work of implementing the Learner Passport at Ecolint (Geneva, Switzerland), Dr Conrad Hughes confirms “it’s important that school leaders today put pressure on parents; universities, to broaden our understanding of pathways.”³
“Unresolved grief will always express itself somehow”⁴ and can manifest itself later in life in different forms. In the educational world, we are starting to acknowledge the importance of "education for wellbeing"⁵ for all children.
It is essential that these (often difficult) conversations around mental health happen in our homes and in our classrooms and school auditoriums, and not only in the counseling office.
We need to reach out to every child, and listen to their stories and help them find answers to their questions, and make it clear that there is support for you if you are struggling — so that the ones who reach out for support get it, and so that those 'seem to be doing so well' don’t fall between the cracks.
The kaleidoscope that shaped my own definition
My definition of success was shaped by the combination of the cultures I grew up in and the (intentional and unintentional) expectations of those who loved me.
From an early age, I was torn between what I thought others expected of me and what I thought I wanted to be. Like many kids, I felt slightly rebellious towards the "Should Train"⁶. I should go to college. I should get a degree. I should get married. I should have children. I should become a strong, independent woman. The latter one I agreed with, but I wasn’t sure about the other ones.
In my children’s book, B at Home: Emma Moves Again, “Emma realizes home will never ever be one place. It will be constantly moving. Like the waves, like the beads in the kaleidoscope.” And just like home, and my sense of belonging, that definition of success continues to shift and fall into place.
Teenage angst and inexperience created confused ambitions for ‘when I grow up’. Slowly but surely throughout my twenties, I redefined my own concept of success, but there were many bumps along the way as I dipped my feet into some ill-fitting jobs and tried to live up to the expectations of those around me, instead of listening to what mattered in my heart.
Today, my path has brought me to advocate for excellent transitions-care within and between schools, as the Executive Director for Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) and founder of Roots with Boots. For the first half of my life, I fitted in trying to belong, until I realized I was just fitting in, not belonging anywhere.⁷
It wasn’t until I explored what it meant to belong to myself, and what hopes and dreams were reflected in my own definition of success, that I was able to choose the path that was right for me, even if it meant having challenging conversations with those close to me.
“Belonging is belonging to yourself first, speaking your truth, telling your story, and never betraying yourself for other people.”⁸ There is a pattern around belonging in my life. My yearbook quote was: “All You Have to Be is You.” My first published book was called B at Home. My work today revolves around transitions-care, where the difference between belonging and fitting in is often discussed.
And as I try to do this work well, I have had to look deeply inwards, learn to accept myself with all my shortcomings and strengths, and process the deep grief that comes with life’s transitions (and not just the ones that involve mobility).
Not only does it help to be able to tell your own story, research has shown that “children who have the most self-confidence have [...] a strong ‘intergenerational self’. They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”⁹ By simply knowing their family history, and the challenges that the generations before them faced, also in terms of mental health, they become more resilient.
This journey taught me that one can only be successful when we feel comfortable about who we are, and develop a strong sense of belonging to oneself, something that’s not always easy for most teens, let alone for those who ‘grow up among worlds.’¹⁰
It taught me that when you allow yourself to broaden your lens, you often start to see many more paths ahead, and none of them are necessarily right or wrong — it's the path you choose and how you choose to walk it.
Growing up Among Different Worlds and Definitions
Growing up with Dutch values and norms, a phrase that has stuck with me from an early age was 'doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg' (just act normal, that’s crazy enough). This stance shaped my early definition of success as I tried to navigate my own path from child to teen, and from teen to young adult, influenced by local school systems and international schools.
Like many children, my ambitions changed often and drastically, all while (like many TCKs) perfecting my chameleon-like skills to blend in wherever I was.
After ‘successfully’ reintegrating into Dutch culture as an 8-year-old, following three years at the Inter-Community School in Zürich, I quickly learned to drop the English words when I forgot the Dutch ones, to blend in, and by all means not to stand out. Not standing out meant fitting in.
So by age 13, I biked to school every morning with my friends, tried to be cool and smoked cigarettes during break times with my peers, made sure to predominantly aim for 7s (C/B-’s) at the Dutch Gymnasium that I attended, and spent my summer at sailing camp. Overall, I felt confident that I belonged and remember this as a time of general happiness.
That January, we moved and I switched from my very Dutch school to the very American International School of Luxembourg. I recall feeling sad to leave, yet excited – the typical rollercoaster of emotions. My new friends all aimed for the sky academically and anything below an A- apparently was deemed unacceptable. I observed, adapted, and did what I needed to do to fit in, desperately wanting to belong.
Before I knew it I was elected into the Junior National Honor Society, joined the Drama Club, and played numerous ball sports. Technically, I was considered much too short to play on any of the school teams, but the teams were so small that they encouraged me to play, a positive example of challenging what you 'need' to be. I started to develop a very strong sense of ‘belonging’ to a very American school culture in an international school.
Exactly three years later we moved in January, again, half way through the school year. In hindsight, that never really helped in the transition process. I left the comfortable community in Luxembourg for Collège du Léman in Geneva, Switzerland.
During this time, as a confused teenager and daughter, I was witness to my dad’s challenges with mental health, and the narrow definition of success that he had grown up with certainly played a role in it. At the time, wellbeing and mental health were not openly discussed, and certainly negatively stigmatized by many of his generation.
Early on, I realized that my father must have felt a lot of pressure, much of which he had put on himself. As a teenager I didn’t understand how it could lead to the dark places he found himself in. I was left frightened by the consequences and potential outcomes of the label of ‘depression’. I had only yet to find out how all that unresolved grief would lead to a life-long battle for him and our family.
I was scared, and sad and angry. The rollercoaster of emotions had significantly become more intense. However, the chameleon in me was determined to just get on with it. I adjusted academically, made friends and ‘thrived’ as I threw myself into extra-curricular activities there as well. Yet, I never quite felt I belonged.
As ideas for the future started to take shape, I strongly leaned towards wanting to pursue a liberal arts degree in America, even though my parents encouraged me to stay in Europe. I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I was feeling quite passionate about finding out where I belonged, on my terms, by myself, far away in a country I had never really known.
Then one day, a few weeks before graduation, the pages of my senior Yearbook stared back at me. There was a picture of me, next to a dear friend: ‘Most Likely To Succeed’. I felt very unsettled.
The Dutch voice 'doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg' played over and over in my head. I remember feeling embarrassed, and envious of those who had been chosen ‘Most Friendly’ or ‘Most Original’ or ‘Most Talented’ — all much loftier titles in my mind.
Admittedly, I also sensed a feeling of shame and failure, because the Ivy League College that I really wanted to attend had ‘rejected' me and I was setting off in a few months time to my ‘back up’ choice, still determined to go to America.
Growing up, I never had a clear idea about what I wanted to be ‘when I grew up’. This embarras du choix is a luxury for many international school kids, and my answers varied between a lawyer, an author, a ski instructor, a Bread & Breakfast owner, a translator, a tour guide, a journalist, a flight attendant, a bookshop keeper … different answers depending on local time, space, and place.
I do recall feeling passionate about one thing. I wanted to do something I really enjoyed, I wanted to pursue a life of happiness. I didn’t want to end up pursuing a career that would lead me to a life of eventual resentment, or even worse — ‘depression’. I thought I knew exactly what I didn’t want, yet wasn’t able to articulate what I did want or how to get there.
Deep down, I also felt a lot of pressure to choose ‘wisely’. Many of my ideas were not considered a ‘true career.’ However, my favorite uncle, who had modeled giving up a ‘true career’ (banking) for his ‘passion work' (journalism), had given me an old, very loved, Dutch version of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and told me it was about a person that is looking for a simple, good life. That’s what I wanted, but I had no idea how. The ambition of living a purposeful life wasn’t something I was able to put into words, let alone with a job title in mind.
By virtue of attending international schools, I grew up in extreme privilege. Observing peers growing up in excessive wealth around me taught me that money did not buy happiness. I had every intention to become independent and self-sufficient, but I never had the ambition to make a lot of money. On the contrary, I was critical of those who did (in hindsight, that was part of a narrow mindset as well).
Switching the Narrative
Yet, here I was in the Yearbook, ‘Most Likely to Succeed’. Most likely to succeed made me think of people who made a fortune pursuing power careers. I didn’t want to be like that, so why would anyone perceive me to be like that? Wow. And there you have it. As an18 year-old, my definition of success was extremely narrow.
Why? Because, even though I was brought up to be a young, open-minded, internationally-minded, and culturally competent young adult, I somehow still grew up believing that success was ultimately about what you achieved academically, where you ended up professionally, how financially well off you were, and even who you interacted with socially. All notions I rebelled against as a young adult, yet my gut reaction about being voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ told another story about what I had subconsciously sculpted as my own definition of success.
And then, one friend set me straight in a way that I will never ever forget. As I lamented my new position in our class of ’95, he said, “Valérie, I never voted for you because I thought you would be successful like that, I voted for you because I think that, down the road, you will be most likely to be happy in life. That’s success.” I am forever grateful to his words. He was right.
It was only years later that I realized that I needed to switch the narrative. I stopped asking myself “what do others expect from me to be successful?” and started asking myself “what choices am I making that will contribute to my sense of belonging and happiness?” And eventually “what can I do to help others manage transitions better to find a sense of belonging and happiness?”
Today, many of us link success to happiness. Even more so since the pandemic, the definition of success seems to be shifting towards prioritizing mental health over material wealth. And given my family history, I feel strongly about our children and students being taught about well-being and preventative mental health care explicitly — at home and at school.
However, happiness is never a constant state of being. Happiness is simply some moments that string together the journey we are each on, together with the plethora of other moments that are not necessarily ‘happy.’
The Narrow Definition versus the Broad Scope of Opportunities
The pain point is that there are a lot of young people who feel that they are not in a position to ask themselves questions about their own personal notions of success, because they are too concerned about pleasing others’ notions of success.
It’s alarming that many international school students today still feel like they need to live up to certain expectations that reflect success in a more conventional way: big name schools, financial security, respectful titles.
Of course, success in terms of ‘happiness’ cannot be quantified whereas financial success can be. Many people who aspire to make a lot of money, often have deliberate notions of what constitutes happiness for them and work very hard to achieve their own sense of happiness.
Regardless of income, when you do what you love, you are still working hard and arguably even harder. Perhaps it’s a little easier to do so every day simply because you are happy doing so. This is what my uncle taught me, and it broke my heart when died at the age of 48, only two years after he had made his career switch.
Recently, I opened up my Yearbook and reflected on what I achieved since the day I first looked at that picture. After obtaining various degrees and exploring a few professional opportunities, I became an international school teacher. More specifically, I became passionate about education, about helping children reach their own personal potential and specifically, about how mobility affects their education and potential.
In the back of my head, the phrase ‘those who can’t, teach’ haunted me early on, and I know that some people who I am very close to never quite saw it as ‘a real career.’ I would argue that educators have the most important career in terms of helping shape the world’s future.
Our society is simply dependent on those who have the ability to inspire and shape young minds, and it’s part of our collective responsibility to help our students broaden their own definition of success, where all children can flourish to the best of their abilities, potentials and passions.
The world of international education offered my husband and me a way to teach while traveling the world, both of which we did zealously. In the last few years we built our home where we met almost 20 years ago. I am incredibly fortunate to be the mother of two amazing cross-cultural children, and we work hard to help them create their own definition of success, without judgment.
First and foremost, I love and deeply treasure our life as a family. And I am privileged to say that I am also passionate about what I do professionally.
Eventually, I chose to leave the primary classroom so that I could focus on my passion for transitions-care. It has been and is the most rewarding professional experience to be part of an incredibly inspiring team of thought leaders, researchers, and educators at Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN). It is truly a gift to work on a daily basis with people who truly lead by example as we strive to support attachment security and positive transitions-care within and between schools.
My Definition of Success
Am I successful? By some people’s definitions, no. By other people’s definitions, yes. At this point, does it matter what anyone else’s definition of success is? Quite frankly — absolutely not.
I have worked incredibly hard to be where I am today, and I am proud of where I am. And it’s not necessarily the degrees or titles that matter, it’s all the life experiences that make you uniquely qualified to do what you do well.
As I mentioned, success, much like happiness, finds its way to you in moments. Is this it? No, this is not it, and I am still on my journey of the string that connects the moments of happiness and success.
It’s the most precious and the most ordinary moments that I spend with my dearest loved ones.
It’s the moments when I am told that I made a positive difference in someone's life, or in their child’s life.
It’s the moments when I find myself eating dinner in a quaint restaurant in a back alley of Madrid with colleagues who have turned into trusted mentors and close friends (and our first face to face get together after three years).
Over seafood and wine, I found myself sharing my thoughts that I had in a quiet moment to myself earlier that evening. As I had been overlooking a mesmerizing sunset over Madrid, I felt overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude.
Grateful to be at an in-person conference that emphasized the importance of positive transitions-care. Grateful to be able to have dinner with them and the previous evening with one of my best friends from my time in Vermont who now teaches in Madrid. Grateful to be able to travel to the conference with dear friends from my hometown in Switzerland, because they were representing the school they work for. Grateful to even be able to travel, because my incredibly supportive husband was holding down the fort at home with our two children. Grateful to be able to refer to home, and know exactly what that meant in my heart.
It’s the moments where we feel that sense of purpose in our personal and professional lives, and it often is related to a sense of true belonging and inner peace. Not just a sense of belonging with others, but even more so with ourselves. The moments where we are at peace with ourselves and the world around us, even when it can be very dark and ugly.
When we can share our moments of happiness and success with our near and dear loved ones, with our community, our tribe, we can consider ourselves fortunate. When we can share and feel supported during our most challenging moments, and when even the moments of support contribute to our wellbeing, we can consider ourselves truly blessed.
And that, to me, is success.
How You Can You Help the Next Generations
It is important to discuss success with our children and/or students. It’s important that we ask ourselves the questions: What do we applaud them for and why does it matter how we encourage them to ‘reach for the stars’? What happens when we unintentionally impose our notions of success and aspirations, and possibly even unfulfilled dreams of our own, onto them?
How can you help your children or your students broaden their own definition of success?
By having an honest conversation with them about your own definition of success and how it was created. By whom and what was it influenced? Tell them about your missteps and challenges. Let them know your achievements, however humble or grand. Most of all, share how your own notions of success may have evolved over time, and what you value(d) most in your own journey.
And then ask them what success means to them. And listen, without judgment. I cringe when I hear people asking children ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?' Instead, be curious about who they aspire to be. They will likely have many different jobs in life, but throughout all of them they will need to learn to be comfortable with who they are, their roots, their sense of belonging.
Allow them to gain ownership of their own definition and support them in their choices. Just like you know that you cannot expect your Cross Cultural Kid (CCK)¹¹ to fully embrace your own culture in exactly the same way you do, you cannot expect your child, who is growing up in a different world than you did, to have the same notions of success.
Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, and our SPAN Vice- Chair, reminded me early in my career the importance of comfort before encouragement. She led by example when she comforted me about my own TCK experience and then encouraged me to keep writing, after I coyishly sent her the first three chapters of B at Home.
Comfort children in the challenges as they sculpt their own definition of success. Let them know they do not need to limit themselves to a narrow definition that doesn’t even resonate with them as they explore their own definition.
Help them understand that — whatever their dreams may be — they will inevitably become more successful through their own lens if they learn to become resilient and perseverant. And that meaningful relationships, with themselves and other others, will help them at every step of the way.
Encourage them to value themselves for who they are, completely, and for they aspire to be. Remember that judgment is the opposite of love and with love comes freedom to live life to the fullest. Success is being able to see you for you, to accept you for you, and to see the potential in yourself. To belong to yourself.
Just like my dear classmate, who helped me shape my definition of success by offering me another lens, you can support others to do the same. It’s okay if it changes many times before they feel they are landing. It inevitably will, and even when your child or student feels a sense of achievement, the kaleidoscope will move again. New ambitions will show up on the horizon, and they will continue to grow, and most importantly in who they are, not what they are.
¹ Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Yarmouth. p.15-33.
² Richtel, M. New York Times article published on May 8, 2022: Hundreds of Suicidal Teens Sleep in Emergency Rooms. Every Night.
³ Hughes, C. 30 minutes with Conrad Hughes…International School of Geneva. School Management Plus Education for Wellbeing. April 27, 2022.
⁴ Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Yarmouth. p.86-102.
⁵ Hughes, C. (2022). Thematic Notes N.7 Curriculum on the Move: Education for Wellbeing, Unesco International Bureau of Education.
⁶ Feiler, Bruce in an interview with Atlanta History Center (2020).
⁷ Brené Brown distinguishes ‘fitting in’ from ‘belonging’ here
⁸ Brené Brown: The Call to Courage on Netflix
⁹ Marshall Duke, psychologist at Emory University: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html
¹⁰ Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Yarmouth. p.4
¹¹ Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Yarmouth. P.35-52.