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How Do You Know When You’re Successful?

 By Meryl Neiman

I was born the youngest of three girls in a family that strongly valued education and academic success. Fortunately for me, I entered this world smart with a good memory (no longer there, but that’s a post for another day) and an instinct for excelling at standardized tests.

School came easy to me, and the SATs were right up my alley, so my parents were thrilled when I was accepted to Brown. Of course, I was thrilled too. Brown was an Ivy League school with no course requirements and the option to take any class pass/fail. But at an even deeper level, I knew that I had succeeded. I did well in high school and now I had been admitted to a top tier college. The validation of my performance was clear and unequivocal. My parents could brag to their friends and I could attend the school of my dreams.

At college, my “success” continued. I did well without working too hard and received a merit scholarship to attend Duke Law School, one of the fifteen or so law schools that comprised the top ten. At Duke, I made it onto Law Review and graduated with honors before clerking for a federal judge, a prestigious (if low paying) position. I got married to my college sweetheart, who graduated from Duke’s medical school, and together we went to Pittsburgh to begin our respective careers.


Here’s where things became muddied. The other top students from my law school class were joining high-­‐powered firms in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. or signing up to save the world (or at least some part of it) at well-­‐respected non-­‐profits. And I? I was in Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers and oversized salads topped with French fries.

Was I still successful? Sure. I didn’t want to be in New York City or New Haven, locations of other top residency programs in my husband’s specialty. A law firm is a law firm and I was at the most prestigious one in town. They paid well. We could always leave Pittsburgh after residency if we chose. Right? Right?

Fast forward ten years. We’re still in Pittsburgh. My husband segued from his residency into an academic fellowship and then one grant followed another. His research tethered him to Pittsburgh. And me? I loved Pittsburgh. There’s no better place to raise a family. And my husband’s sisters and parents were all in Pittsburgh. So what if I wasn’t working on the most interesting cases? They were big cases, worth lots of money, and important to the firm. I was still successful, right? Right?

Fast forward another ten years. Yep, we’re still in Pittsburgh. My husband is one of the leading experts on bipolar disorder in children and adolescents. He’s been quoted in the country’s leading newspapers and interviewed on national television. And me? Well, I didn’t want to be working sixty hours a week, jealous of some nanny who spent more time with my kids than I did. So I tried working part-­‐time at the firm, but it just wasn’t a good fit. You can’t manage cases and take them to trial if you’re committed to being able to get your kids from daycare by 6 PM.

So I quit and tried my hand at writing. I always loved reading and writing, I was an English major after all, and I had this great idea for a legal thriller. I could be the next Grisham. How’d that go, you might ask? The good news is that I actually finished a novel. I taught myself the craft of novel writing (once I realized that there was a craft and I really should know it) and I wrote a decent legal thriller. The even better news was that I landed one of the top literary agents in New York City. But the bad news? The bad news was that the book didn’t sell. My line to friends and family was that I was rejected at the very highest levels of New York publishing. I knew that just completing a novel was in itself a hugely significant accomplishment (most people who start never finish) and getting an agent, let alone a really good one, was yet another huge accomplishment. I also knew that selling your first novel was about as likely as winning the lottery, but all that knowledge didn’t lessen the blow. I had failed.

And now what was I to tell people when they asked what I did? What was I now? Was I a stay at home? Was I a failed fiction writer? Was I a struggling fiction writer because I did continue to write, although with much less enthusiasm, after my ultimate rejection? What was I? And was I successful?

A few weeks ago, my oldest friend in the world and I launched an online business. I had always wanted to own my own business but never had the guts to give it a go. But when Lisa told me about her idea for a website where parents could go to schedule playdates online, I thought it was genius. We make dinner reservations and book airfare online, why couldn’t we arrange our child’s social calendar as quickly and easily? But even beyond the greatness of the idea lay the possibility of career redemption. So maybe I wasn’t general counsel for the Washington Post or owner of my own named law firm or a professor at a top law school (like some of my former law school classmates), but I could start a company. A company that could make the lives of busy parents easier and possibly even make me some money.

So how’s PlaydatePlanet going? I don’t know. It’s too early to say. We’re getting hits on the website from all over the world. Feedback has been universally positive. And we haven’t yet started a marketing campaign to drive traffic to the site. It could be the next Facebook. Or it could crash and burn. And then what?

What defines success? My husband says it comes from within. That I shouldn’t need external validation to feel good about myself. When I share how anxious I am about being a failure again, he gently suggests therapy. But when you’ve spent your whole life receiving someone else’s validation for doing well, it is really hard to give it up cold turkey. My children don’t stop and tell me, “wow, that was a good parenting moment, right there.” They don’t compliment me on my steadfast driving ability that carries them to and fro their various activities. We never really know how we’re doing as parents, do we?

So, what do you think defines success? How do you know whether you are achieving it? Should I be able to feel good about myself and my work without any tangible sign of success? Do I need therapy???? Chime in!

[Oh, and if you want to help my self-­‐image, and if you have a playdate-­‐aged child, sign up at PlaydatePlanet and spread the word. It would save me the money from therapy.]

Meryl Neiman is a recovering attorney and co-­‐President of PlaydatePlanet, a social networking site where parents can post and accept playdates for their children online. Meryl blogs regularly about parenting and related issues at PlaydatePlanet’s TimeOutRoomBlog. You can also follow her on Twitter  @playdateplanet and subscribe to her posts on Facebook.

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