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Why does "success" feel so elusive?

When we were children, they started drumming it into our heads.

Our little drawings and papers came home with gold stars, then innocuous comments – maybe a smiley face or two. It felt good!

As we got older, they started giving us letter grades: an A for praise, an F for shame, and all the letters in between. As we grew, so did the ways in which we were judged: letter grades became numbers to better analyze and detail our missteps. That didn’t feel so good.

State tests, federal tests, local and national rankings – all were carefully designed to give an objective measure of success or failure. All of these rankings are other-based; all were still constructed as external motivators for achievement.

And when we finally reached our adult sizes and burst into our adult careers, when we got out of school, and into life… many of us still acted as if someone, somewhere, will still give us that A+. Maybe, if we really, really try, we’ll get a gold star. Maybe we can still chase that good, good feeling – of appreciation, of approval.

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Many freelancers are hard-working, high-achieving people, who push relentlessly towards that imaginary A+++. That’s not a bad thing! But when we achieve our goals, an interesting thing happens:

Nobody gives us a gold star – or if they do, it’s transitory and temporary. The freelancer suddenly finds that “success” doesn’t feel real (or if it does, it seems to be just around the corner). The goalposts have moved.

Again, that’s not a bad thing! It’s great and laudable to have developing objectives and dreams. The issue comes when we look primarily toward external motivators to bolster our sense of accomplishment.

When we’re constantly looking for acclaim, we rob ourselves of power. When we focus exclusively on external praise, we have difficult celebrating our successes and triumphs. We start doubling down on results, not process – chasing that elusive sense of approval, instead of our own fulfillment.

Nobody – not even the hardest working freelancer – can control others’ opinions.

You cannot force someone to recognize your accomplishments. Even if you could, it would be transitory and unsatisfying.

Examine your concept of “success.”

Are you constantly looking to others for approval? What does “success” look like to YOU? Forget the rankings and external opinions for a moment. What motivates you, internally? There, you will find fertile ground for growth.

When you began learning and growing as a child, you weren’t doing so to earn a grade – you were exploring for your own gratification.

It’s natural to look to our peers and authorities for some kind of acknowledgement of success, but focusing exclusively on those external rankings may leave you feeling hollow and bitter, longing for a permanent A+ that will never come.

Give yourself the A+. Give yourself the gold star. You’re the teacher now. What do YOU want to learn and achieve? In the pursuit of that, you may find a quest for “success” that can evolve and change as you do.

… and that feels good.

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.