Earlier this week, I was walking around Brooklyn, and I saw a huge poster with Maya Angelou’s portrait on it. Underneath, written in big, bold letters, was a quote.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou
It resonated deeply with me, because for the first time in a long time, I feel like I like myself, I like what I do, and I like how I do it. Granted, there is always room for improvement – for positive change and growth – but for now, I feel like I am finally in a good place. Is this what success feels like?
This quote could be applied to any area of life. I saw it, and I first thought of work. But later, I reflected on the other areas of my life where I see success, or sometimes, a lack of it. I think of my side passion projects – writing, reading, giving LGBTQ history tours. Am I successful in those? How am I measuring that success? And I also think of relationships with family, maintaining relationships with friends, making new friends, and in general, the perception from the world around me. It would be nice to feel successful in all of these areas.
It’s a spectrum. Sometimes, I feel incredibly successful, other times, I feel like a failure. And of course, it’s more complicated than that. I could “fail” on one project, but be successful in another. Or an apparent failure could lead to ultimate success. Maya Angelou’s quote caught me though because it seems so simple. I like her definition of success because it’s self-defined.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
All of those characteristics are up to my discretion; they are my choice. I can choose whether or not to like myself (and trust, that’s a constant journey). I can choose to do something I like, and if I don’t like it, I can choose to do something else. And I am a man of free will, so I can make my own decisions in choosing how I do it.
It’s all about personal definition, personal choice.
It’s not about money. It’s not about how big your apartment is. It’s not about how expensive your clothes are. And it is so, so easy to forget that, especially living in New York City. Every night, I pass by other apartments with grand pianos in the windows, with floor-to-ceiling windows and crystal chandeliers. I see people with designer-brand clothes, making at least six figures.
I’m not sure if I will have any of that. And taking a deeper look into my own personal values, I’m not sure I want any of it. Because to me, that’s not what success is really about. That’s not what happiness is. And one of my favorite sayings has the same mentality: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt
And in addition to everything else, it reminds me that it’s not what our life is, but how we choose to live it. When I was younger, I used to constantly play a game of cat-and-mouse. I’d chase things. A new job, a new apartment, a new city, a new friend, a new boyfriend. And none of it made me any happier. Along the way, I met some amazing people, did some cool things, and lived in some fun places. But then imagine my surprise when I moved to the greatest city in the world, doing something that was supposed to be my “career,” with a rent-free apartment, and I found myself completely miserable.
That was when I learned that lesson. Because no matter what I did, I was constantly in a cycle of not liking myself, not liking what I did, and not liking how I was doing it.
Things feel different now. After 27 long years, I finally feel settled in a way that I am enjoying. It’s a lifelong journey, it’s a lifelong process, but rather than being intimidated by the unseen road ahead, I’m excited to keep building it up for myself, and continuing to pave the way.