The names in this piece have been changed to protect individual privacy.
“Do you want to prove them right?”
When I was in high school, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, mental health issues aside, I asked myself almost every morning some version of the question above.
“Do you want to disappoint your mother?”
“Do you want them to laugh that you failed?”
“Do you want them to be right, that you cannot succeed?”
It seemed society had its own preconceived expectation of what I could achieve in life given the circumstances I was born in. Raised by a single mother, an inconsistent father, and being a woman of colour, the statistics said I would face many challenges and be limited in what I could pursue and where I could succeed.
According to a 2010 study published in Future Child by Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues at Columbia University. I would have a 37 per cent chance of both dropping out of high school and facing teenage pregnancy. I was also expected to have behavioural, emotional and social issues. I wasn’t expected to “succeed” in any of the aforementioned areas.
What does it mean to succeed? What are the necessary components of a successful life? You can look up the word “success” in any dictionary, and you’ll be given a concise and simple definition. But some people might say that the definition of success is more complicated. How do we determine whether someone has succeeded? How would you know if you achieved said success? Does success mean doing well in school? Does success mean having a high-income career?
Tessa’s high-school teachers and guidance councillors told her she didn’t have a chance of getting into university. She didn’t have the grades; she didn’t have the work ethic. She wasn’t expected to succeed and was told she shouldn’t pursue a university education.
Tessa, now a 27-year-old university student, defines success as reaching her goals, no matter how small. That could be “getting a promotion, reaching a weight loss goal, or waking up in the morning and going for a run because you promised yourself the night before you would do it.”
Tessa grew up in an Asian immigrant family. A lot was expected of her. “I was constantly reminded that I had many more opportunities than my parents did growing up and that if they could be successful with half of the resources I grew up with then I should be twice as successful as they are.” These expectations hindered Tessa’s growth, pressuring her to seek out perfection. If she couldn’t succeed at that, she believed her parents wouldn’t be proud of her.
Tessa explains, “Growing up with immigrant parents, I was constantly reminded of the opportunities I have here in Canada that they didn’t have back home […] I was always comparing myself to them, and instead of treating failure as a lesson I would feel ashamed, as though I had failed because I didn’t try hard enough. This was tough because I grew up believing that I had to be perfect, and if I wasn’t perfect my parents would never be proud of me.”
On the other hand, Wendy, a 24-year-old recent university graduate, never felt pressured by her family to be successful in school or in her career. They only wanted her to be happy. However, Wendy struggled with the pressures of society, of society’s definition of success: having a great job, great skills, and a reasonably happy life. She wasn’t sure how someone like her could be successful, or what that success should and would look like.
Her family has never pressured her to be successful, but Wendy used to view success as having a good career and being able to support her family. She has come to define success as finding happiness through human connections, positive relationships with others, and learning from failure. “As cliche as it sounds, my happiness extends to my success.” It’s her family’s happiness that drives her to improve herself, and to set and meet her goals that allow her to add to that success.
Wendy doubted her abilities upon graduating from university and trying to join the workforce. “Like many new graduates, I struggled with impostor syndrome and felt like no one would hire me because my skill set wasn’t good enough.”
Alex, a 30-year-old student, was told by his teachers that he was lazy, not hard-working enough, and unable to take life seriously. He was considered intelligent, but ADHD limited his ability to stay on task, be organized, and not be a distraction to others. People had little faith he would make anything of himself.
Unlike Tessa and Wendy, Alex defines success as being able to manage his ADHD. Simple things like being able to set a goal—for example, sitting down for an hour to work on an assignment—is challenging for those with ADHD. He further defines success as “overcoming, coping, and managing any obstacles that may interfere with that goal.” That could be his medication, removing distractions from his environment, or moving himself to a location that will help keep him focused.
As for me, I have a difficult time defining success for myself. As I grew older, my definition of success morphed from being good at everything to challenging other’s perceptions or preconceived notions about me. It became a game of doing and achieving what others thought I couldn’t. My grade twelve biology teacher thought I was aiming too high by wanting to study Psychology at the University of Toronto. As a U of T alumni herself, she was stunned into an awkward silence when she learned of my early acceptance.
“You don’t have the experience to play basketball at a University level.” “Your writing isn’t good enough for you to consider doing it as a profession.” “You can’t be an athlete and play the piano.” How different my life would have been if I’d believed what other people said about what I couldn’t do and how I could live my life.
Just as people are individually unique, that uniqueness extends to our individual definitions of what success can look like. But, more often than not, we allow definitions of success by external voices such as family, culture, and society to dictate what we can and cannot pursue—what we can or cannot achieve—and that tends to start with the circumstances and abilities we have at the start of our journeys.
For decades, the various schools of psychology have debated the role of genetics and the environment in the development and behaviours of people. Discussed to death, the nature versus nurture debate has concluded that there cannot be any one answer. Therein lies some participation of both your genetics, the specific traits and attributes forever entangled with your DNA, and nurture, the quality and condition of your environment.
While the debate concluded with “there’s no way to really prove it’s one or the other,” the same concepts of nature versus nurture live on in the perceptions and expectations of our families, communities, and society. It remains today, to many people, that what you’re born with can’t be changed. This belief holds so fast that you are limited in this “stock configuration,” and there is nothing you can do.
Similar to the previous experiences, Alex would beat himself for not being able to finish tasks within the allotted time frame, or how others expected said tasks to be completed.
Statistically speaking, I was expected to be worse off in school, have poor social and emotional development, and low job prospects. I was more likely to become a teen parent, to drop out of school, and to get into trouble with the law. Even in my own extended family, it was a shock that my sister and I did well in school. It was a shock that we got good grades, got into university, as well as play and teach piano at a music school. Children from broken families like ours don’t usually achieve any of the aforementioned. We aren’t even expected to come close.
Tessa was born into a family whose culture demands excellence in everything that they do. Wendy felt burdened by the demands of the professional world. Alex struggled to meet the most basic of expectations. As for me, I saw the world as always being against me. I always second guessed who or what I could be, and I often felt pressured to not end up being another statistic.
We would accomplish very little if we took others’ expectations and conclusions about our lives as fact—an inevitable reality we can’t hope to change. How very little strides we could make if we allowed others to place limitations on us, on the type of dreams and ambitions we have for ourselves. How very little of life we would enjoy if we constantly let ourselves believe what others tell us: how we’re supposed to be, act, and succeed. How very little happiness we could allow ourselves to have if we allowed others to tell us how we should be happy. How very little we could grow if just accepted we can’t change our circumstances.
I believe the first step to growing through—and in spite of—our own expectations and that of others is to accept that that is all they are: expectations. What’s expected isn’t fact. It’s not carved in stone. It is merely a possibility. It can be changed. It’s possible to grow past them. You have to be willing to fight for your dreams. You cannot allow others to tell you what isn’t possible.
Tessa had dreams of becoming a dentist but following the dismissal of her teachers and guidance councillors, she threw the dream away because they told her she couldn’t go to university. She attended culinary school, much to the disapproval of her Asian immigrant parents whose friends were able to brag about how their children were doctors or engineers.
Following culinary school, and a brief career as a chef, Tessa made the decision to renew her pursuit of becoming a dentist. It took some time, but Tessa began to understand how much more important the journey is than the destination. She understands now that “success isn’t the only option.” She graduated with distinction and a biology degree from the University of Toronto and is currently half-way through a master’s program at Western University.
Wendy has established herself as an exceptional writer and editor. And she doesn’t think she could have gotten there without the hiccups and setbacks. “It might seem counter-intuitive to say success is made up of a series of failures, but I believe that life’s greatest lessons are learned through failures.” Wendy believes it’s fear that keeps so many from pursuing the goals and happiness they desire. Fear leads to missed opportunities and branching out to different things. “Success should not be measured by money, but by feeling satisfied with your accomplishments and the people around you.”
We learn by following the examples of what others have set, and we often forget that they’re just guidelines, frameworks for how to do things. There are many different ways to approach our goals, just as there are many different types of people with different skills and challenges.
Alex has learned that there are two aspects you need to consider: First, if you want to succeed, find a system that works for you. And second, don’t let others who don’t experience what you do tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
“For all the obvious negatives of ADHD, it gives us the ability to think in ways other people cannot. Always try to find a new or creative way to accomplish a task. I learned I can actually do any task I want to; I just need to find a way specific to me to accomplish it,” says Alex. Alex completed an undergraduate degree in political science and public policy. Today he’s in his final semester of a paralegal program, and he’s landed a job at a corporate law firm.
More often than not, the discourse around success and limitations includes words like “despite” or “overcome,” especially when regarding challenges, actual or perceived. Rarely do I see or hear people using these expectations to their advantage. Rarely do I see or hear people citing their challenges and limitations as the reason for their achievements.
I feel like I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have or made it this far in my life, if not for my drive to surpass others’ expectations. I was expected to become another statistic, and with those low expectations, some of the pressure to succeed was kept off my shoulders. Those low expectations also made me more determined to prove that I was more than what others thought I could be. Single parent children fair worse in school, are less likely to finish school, and have poor job stability. I was an honour student, attended UTM, worked at a music school for nearly a decade, and ran the sports section of an independent newspaper. The majority of people either forget or don’t consider that there is only one person who has to live in your skin. There is only one person who can walk in your shoes, feel and experience what you do every day and for the rest of your life. And that person is you.