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Turning Point

Defining Success

How to know when you've finally arrived

What does success mean?

For my father, success was measured in upgrades to his company car — from Chevy to Pontiac to Chrysler — in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, respectively.  Success was putting the family in that car for a vacation trip to Florida, even though he was a salesman who spent much of his life behind the wheel.

For my mother, success was defined by upgrades in the appliances that made her housework easier. One remarkable day an Electrolux salesman rang the bell. No sooner had he finished his vacuum sweeper demo than my frugal mother bought one, leaving her daughters gaping in surprise.

My parents were people of modest means; they also measured success by having a little money that they didn't have to spend. By their own standards they were successful.

But what does success mean now? Urban studies theorist and author Richard Florida argues that young people today see flexibility and creativity as key to professional status. A generation ago no one but an art student would have thought such a thing, he says.

Yet these ideas seem to be resonating powerfully among their parents, too, particularly as we evaluate our postcareer lives — which could extend 10, 20, or even 30 years! The pursuit of flexibility and creativity is a powerful force behind the trend of reinvention.

Consider Betsy McCarthy, whom I met last year while reporting a segment for NBC's Today show. Betsy's job as a health care executive gave her all the trappings of success: promotions, a six-figure salary, respect. But like many who enjoy these trappings, Betsy felt a little trapped by them.

At 57 she left the corporate world and followed her passion — knitting — to pursue a career as an author, pattern maker, and teacher. Her priorities had changed. Flexibility and creativity had become the defining words in her estimation of success. In the bargain, she discovered her essential self — or, to be more accurate, rediscovered it. "I was going back to who I was when I was a little girl," she says. "I was very happy making doll dresses and doing creative things with fabric, with color."

Times change and people change, and so does the definition of success.

Award-winning journalist Jane Pauley is AARP's Your Life Calling ambassador.

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