Success is not linear. A lot of people know this, and a lot of people will tell you so with the help of graphs and stories about how the people whom we consider most successful today were fired, or sidelined, or overcame obstacle over obstacle before reaching where they are today. But sometimes, when you’re staring down a setback yourself, it can be hard to remember all of that. Sometimes, the road to success just sucks.
It doesn’t help, either, that social media can make everything look like a highlight reel, and like some people’s lives are a nonstop series of wins. If they disclosed their losses as well, and removed the shiny veneer that affects so many stories about licking wounds and learning from defeat, your scrolling experience would likely be infinitely sadder — but it would also be more honest. Add to that the fact that most people don’t disclose the things that helped get them to their personal peaks — the money from parents that allowed them to take risks, the losses by people who came before that served as free lessons on what not to do — and you’d be forgiven for believing that success is the default, that some people don’t falter, that winning is the default.
The opposite of winning isn’t loss — it’s learning, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. True, sometimes you may be too sensitive, too raw, too tender to seek out the lesson at the heart of every experience, and that’s OK. Trying to force some grand epiphany while you’re hurting can only salt the wound further, and keep you from healing — but sometimes it can help. Only you know the difference, and though learning from your mistakes can be painful, those lessons can help provide closure, and teach you what it is you want to do differently, or even if you want there to be a next time. The signs will be there, and the voice will try to speak to you if you choose to listen.
Sometimes the decisions are given to us without our input — a layoff, a breakup, an illness or injury. But the actual step backwards almost always is a conscious choice, whether that’s deciding to be single for a while to get back in touch with who you are as a person, apart from someone else, or taking a job with a lower pay rate while you figure out what exactly you want to do next. There’s no shame in the temporary backslide, or in recalibrating yourself and your life so that you remember what is important to you, and what exactly you want to do with your life.
The key lies in recalibrating what success means to you, and if buying into the status symbols other people have set for us is actually worth it in that moment. If you really need to seek out a pay increase at every turn, if taking a cut means you’ll be happier and more attuned to your desires in the long run. What good is it to stay in a relationship that no longer serves you, that drains you more than it feeds you, simply because society has told us that there is something wrong with single people? Society tells us a lot of things. Few of them are actually true. It’s up to you to determine what is true for you, and for your own path.
That process — figuring out what you want to do with your time here on earth — is a big ask, and it won’t be without its own struggles. But that is the process of living, of waking up every day and making a series of small decisions that add up to big decisions, that culminate in your life’s work. Often, those small decisions contradict each other. Sometimes, those big decisions need to be adjusted. Not everyone uses their college degree in the way they thought they would. What you wanted to be when you were growing up is rarely the thing you wind up being when you are grown.
But if you can look back and say you tried, and that you listened to yourself and honored your truth when you could, you might find those setbacks were part of the success. Catching your breath won’t always cost you the race, but even if it does, is that really a race you were meant to run? Focus your energy on the paths you’re meant to go down, and you’ll find that even the steps backward will feel right in the grand scheme. There always is one. It’s up to you to decide what that scheme is.