How Do You Know When You've 'Made It'?

One of my friends who’s also a writer asked me this question a few months ago. From her vantage point in the world — a few years younger than I am, with less work and life experience — she said that I seem like someone who has, in her words, “made it.” I’ve achieved the dream! I’m living it!

This made me laugh a little bit (quietly, to myself; I don’t laugh at my friends). I explained my own perspective to her: nobody really ever feels like they have made it, at least as far as I can tell. Your old problems just get replaced with new ones. The things that you felt were huge achievements that you’d cherish forever are maybe still important, but they’re usually overshadowed by bigger things that you now want to achieve because you’ve hit the next rung on the ladder.

I don’t think this was the answer she wanted to hear: “No, the ladder never stops at Cloud 9; you just keep climbing it until you die.” Of course, we all have an idea in our minds about what it will mean to have finally made it. But in my experience, that idea will shift and change throughout life as we reach one goal. I’m definitely no psychologist, but I do read a lot, and what I’ve read seems to indicate that people are rarely satisfied with where they are for very long — achieve one rung of the ladder and you might spend a little bit of time basking in where you are, but sooner or later, you want more.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I cannot honestly weigh in one way or another. I’ve been going through some of the journal questions at the end of Things That Join The Sea And Sky, an excellent book by Mark Nepo, and one recent question asked whether I have been more likely to immerse myself in life or to try to take control of it. The way I interpreted it, this question was in essence about setting and pursuing goals: Do you or don’t you? At different stages in life, I think I’ve done both, and they’ve served me in different ways.

Immersion

Before I became a parent, I think my path through life was more defined by immersion than control. There were definitely things I wanted to accomplish, but they were mostly nebulous and out of reach beyond the immediate future. Get good grades in this class. Graduate at this time. Those were goals that seemed mostly set by the world around me, and they were not all that connected to the person I wanted to be.

After I finished school and accomplished the “get a job in my field” goal (which I am still quite proud to have ticked off the list; finding a journalism job in the mid-’00s wasn’t exactly the easiest task in the world), I really didn’t have anything left on my list. Owning a house one day would be nice, but it didn’t seem remotely attainable on my entry-level journalist’s salary, and I wasn’t in a huge hurry to do that. I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted kids. The best thing I could accomplish with my education and background, I figured, was maybe to one day become an editor — but even that seemed well out of reach, and I really wasn’t sure I wanted to be an editor-in-chief … like, ever.

I had a job and a career, but I think it’s safe to say that from a goal standpoint, I drifted for several years. I took the path of least resistance. When I got laid off from my entry-level journalism job, I went back to waiting tables and bartending. When a job opened up again at the publication where I was working, I took it. A few years later, I found a different job that paid slightly more and accepted the offer that was extended to me.

I worked hard for my employers; I would even say I went above and beyond. But I had no real tangible thoughts of loftier goals, let alone what it would take to achieve them. When crises arose, I tackled them, but planning for the future? Heck nah.

Then came pregnancy.

Control

From my own vantage point at this stage in time and space, pregnancy was a big shift for me. It was fine for me to drift. What was the purpose of goals and future plans for me, myself, and my husband and dog? There wasn’t one, so who cared?

But knowing I was bringing another life into the world changed everything. I wanted to do things right. I wanted to feed him and clothe him and care for him in the most perfectly perfect way that was in my power to execute. And I realized after I got back from maternity leave that I wouldn’t be able to be the best mom I could be if I stayed at my job that I’d drifted into — it simply wouldn’t be possible.

I made a really scary decision: to quit and go back to school while freelancing to help pay the bills. I figured there would always be a need for healthcare workers, so why not get my nursing license? I started taking some prerequisites to get into nursing school: statistics (again!), anatomy and physiology, and was into a second part-time semester of chemistry and microbiology when I found a job, or a job found me, that made nursing school unnecessary. I could work remotely and spend time with my family, and earn as much money as a nurse. Sign me up!

That job opened up a wealth of opportunity for me. I went from being a junior editor to an editor-in-chief of a publication — the title I considered the pinnacle of success but hadn’t been sure I really wanted a decade earlier. (Yes, I fully realized the irony of this even in the moment, in case you wondered.)

I traveled to conferences, I spoke on some stages, I relished the control that I’d suddenly accessed to my own life and circumstances. And I did other things that had once seemed out of reach. I worked from home full-time. I bought a house! One where I still live and plan to raise my son (and his little brother, coming soon).

The thing about control, though, is that it’s never perfect, and sometimes it’s an illusion. I spent more time working than I ever had before in my life. My insomnia, dormant since an abusive relationship in college, re-emerged. My husband told me he was worried about my health. My freelance business that I’d started to cultivate was completely dormant. Part of me felt in control of this situation at the time, but I will always be grateful that immersion took over again for a spell to direct me toward a healthier, more balanced path for me: A new job in marketing and a revitalized freelance business.

My own private finish line

So this is where I am when my dear friend tells me that she thinks of me when she thinks of making it — I have a good job writing and editing and planning marketing content and copy; my husband is supportive and a fantastic cook (and tall, dark, and handsome to boot); I have a flourishing side gig that’s fun and stimulating and allows me occasional financial splurges; I spend some time every month volunteering for an extremely worthy cause; I still have my lovely house; I’ve got a beautiful family with a new baby on the way. I can see why she thinks I’m there. So why does it make me smile?

Because to me, making it has really only meant one big thing in life: I want to publish a book. A novel. Preferably a bestseller that wins critics’ hearts and accolades and awards. I have finished exactly one novel in the past however-many years since I graduated college, and although I am proud of it, I’m also well aware that it’s not at the point (at least not yet) where I’m going to win any awards. At least right now, it’s too immature to unleash onto the world … I know I can do better.

And even if (or when) I do manage to publish this novel, or a different novel that I’m working on but haven’t yet finished (… let’s not talk about how many of those there have been, please), will I have made it?

My life circumstances so far tell me that no, I will not. I’ve already done big things that I never thought I’d do before. They didn’t have the intensity of this dream of becoming a “real writer” (my words, nobody else’s!), but still — I’m a wife and a mom and a homeowner. And a former editor-in-chief. Although all of those accomplishments were and are important to me, they were never the end. After one kid comes two. After two comes raising them both to love and respect each other, and other humans. After the early years comes pre-school comes kindergarten comes elementary school and so on up until they are ready to be adults together. After this job will come another. After this novel is ready will come rejections until maybe it is accepted somewhere, or maybe I decide to self-publish it. And after one book is live in the world, there will be another.

None of this will unfold the way I expect it to unfold today, in this moment — and that’s as it should be. I want to keep trying to make it and I want that bar to keep moving up, and up, for both myself and the world around me. Things might seem dire today (and oh boy, are they; I’m certainly not denying that), but just think for a moment what a suffragette might say, or an abolitionist, should they stumble on a time machine and get to visit our future for a moment. Maybe they’d say, “You made it!”

And we haven’t, not yet, none of us. But we’re working on it, I like to hope.

Photo by Ethan Hoover on Unsplash