It’s interesting what indicators the average person uses to label themselves or someone else successful, isn’t it? In America, it’s typically a certain number and type of vehicles, a certain sized home, style of dress, and any number of outward expressions of materialism. In the age of social media, success has morphed to include the number of people on your Facebook ‘Friend’ list, Twitter followers or Instagram groupies. I’m not knocking any of those things. If they make you feel successful, by all means, good for you! In my experience, too often they’re all smoke and mirrors. They conveniently ignore important questions like, “If I lost my job today, how long would I be able to maintain my current lifestyle?” Or, “If I was really in a bind, how many people on my Facebook friend list would come running?” Chances are, that list is much smaller than you think. The reality may be that if you lost your job tomorrow, your cars and home are not too far behind.
I remember back when I was a few years into the consulting world, doing pretty well, but still the frugal person I am today and will likely always be. I met up with some old associates for a restaurant Happy Hour, driving up in my plain, ordinary, six-year-old Toyota Camry. As we sat in the restaurant catching up and trading stories, one of them congratulated me on the success I’d had so far. Without missing a beat, another dryly said, “I think it’s time to upgrade your car, girlfriend.” I laughed. Not because I remotely thought she was right, but because I didn’t identify with her idea of success. My car was paid off, it ran perfectly, was reliable and got me from A to B to Z. Why should I ‘upgrade’? Who should I try to impress? As the conversation continued, we got on the subject of vacations. I’d only just taken my first trip abroad visiting friends in Venice, Italy, and was awestruck by my experience there and in Florence and Rome. In total, my husband and I spent just under two weeks exploring those cities, and it opened our eyes to a world outside of this country. The same person who told me to ‘upgrade’ my car, announced that Italy was her next big dream vacation in a couple of years, once she paid off the debt from her last trip abroad two years prior. She complained about her expenses, her job, the maintenance contract on her car. I said nothing. She didn’t know I’d paid my trip in cash and had no debt. She didn’t know I rode free and lived in the same starter home my husband and I bought when we had much less money, which allowed us the flexibility to live without constraints. By contrast, she drove a luxury car, dressed amazingly well and had a home that could probably eat my house for lunch. I knew I’d never fit her definition of success. At the same time, I knew I’d never want to.
How about you? How do you define success?
- Do you secretly judge people by the car they drive, what they wear, or the size of their home?
- Does the size of your social media following affect how relevant you feel?
- If it applies: What’s your excuse for living beyond your means?