Success Looks Different for Everyone: The Importance of Resilience

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By Sarah Fowler

What is Success?

When we teach children about success, we typically do so in the simplified form of a Merriam Webster definition [1]:

  1. Getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame
  2. Someone or something that is successful
  3. A favorable or desired outcome

But what exactly does that mean? Who determines what “achieving wealth, respect, or fame” is? Who identifies someone or something as successful? Who picks which outcome is favorable or desirable? It’s all extremely subjective.

Success is not one-size-fits-all

This thought arose within me this morning. As a disabled clinician with several chronic illnesses, I’ve had to tailor what success means to me, and only me. Otherwise, I would be constantly failing; compared to able-bodied individuals, wishing I had the same “success” that is inaccessible because of my disability (e.g., successful people work full time without being significantly overwhelmed).

When we teach our children what it means to be successful, we often forget to mention that success looks different for everyone.

Success looks different for everyone

When you look at the term success as an unachievable highest societal standard, people become insecure, feeling like a failure. For example, if we are speaking about success in gym class, we think of the classmates who run the fastest mile, who does the most pulls, who scores more baskets or goals. So where is a disabled individual supposed to fit in? Success for this individual might look like being able to participate in a game from their wheelchair or scooter. It might also look like getting through gym class without crying from the grief of not being able to participate in the way they used to or want to.

Thus, when we generalize success based on the representation of a neurotypical, able-bodied individual, it has a significant impact on children who do not fall in those categories.

Success and Failure are Non-Binary

Another problem arises with dichotomous thinking, also known as black and white thinking. Dichomotics thinking is often the lens we look through when identifying success or failure. Hence, if you’re not successful, you’re automatically a failure and vice versa.

The view of success and failure as opposites doesn’t demonstrate the fluidity of the two terms. Instead, it puts successful people in one box and failures in another. For example, say we have a student who failed a test. His teacher allowed him to retake the test, but he fails it a second time. At this point, the child’s motivation is completely diminished by the feeling of being a failure. So much that he begins to identify himself as such. Thus, if a problem is too challenging for a child, they will harness that negative reinforcement into not only failing this test but failing at life. They become a failure, absent of success. However, with the “goldilocks” amount of an achievable challenge, a student will demonstrate increased motivation, more engagement, and gain confidence.

So, what happens when we think outside of the box? Will we finally see that success and failure are non-binary but rather a spectrum? That it’s a constant ebb and flow of back and forth between the two?

Inspirational and motivational quote of failure is often part of the journey to success.

Put yourself in their shoes

Imagine you are a student with a learning disability and are able to understand the binary concepts of intelligent or not. Your whole school career is spent questioning why does everyone around me succeed while I continue to fail?

Now imagine you’re a speech therapy student. Your “speech teacher” points out which sounds you are saying incorrectly. Regardless of how that message is delivered, you still feel like you are failing compared to your peers who do not need speech therapy. In turn, you feel insecure and/or unintelligent. It labels you as something no one wants to be. A failure.

Lastly, imagine you’re a student with a disability or chronic illness who is applying to graduate school. You have worked extremely hard to make it through schooling with the cards you were dealt, but it still isn’t enough. Compared to your peers, you have lower grades, fewer extracurricular activities, and are overall less qualified. But what about resiliency? What about the fact that you worked twice as hard, if not more than your peers? Regardless of how hard you worked, by the societal standard of success, you get rejected over and over again.

Think about it…

I’d like you to take a moment to think about what success means to you. How might that differ from your family members and friends? Are there things they could achieve that you can’t? For example, maybe your idea of success is becoming the world record holder of the most 3-pointers scored in a game. What are factors that may affect your ability to do so? Disability? Too short? Unfit? Asthma? There are plenty of reasons why that idea of success is flawed. However, success isn’t something unobtainable. Success isn’t being a world record holder. Success isn’t being better than others. Success isn’t achieving the “correct” outcome. Success is failing, reflecting, adjusting, and trying again. Success is something we had within us all along.

Changing the definition of success

Earlier I mentioned the term “resiliency.” Resiliency is the ability to reflect on your mistakes and “bounce back” from failure. Resiliency is what keeps us going after failure. It’s how we grow from our mistakes rather than beat ourselves up with should of, could of, would of. Resilience is non-binary, fluid, and adaptable. It isn’t based on somebody else’s definition or perception of success. Success, in turn, is just that. Success is the process of failing, learning, and adapting. In conclusion, success begins with failure and ends with resilience.

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