Happiness vs. Achievement: The Cost of “Success”?

As I prepare to send out invitations for my daughter’s high school graduation party, I want to take some time to share the lessons of the amazing 20-year journey of parenting that is now moving into a new phase for me. 

For years my daughter planned to become a veterinarian, but now that she has switched gears and decided to study entrepreneurship and business in college, I realize how thankful I am that she is not going to spend the next eight years in a cutthroat pressure-cooker of competition to get into vet school.

I realize now that she is a natural entrepreneur because she’s always been an innovator who loved creating new things and making money! When she was only about 6 years old, she launched her first “company” after her grandfather helped her make a website to display her paper creations. After that, she sold her friends purses she made using a sewing machine she got as a gift from her grandpa and grandma, who taught her how to use it. As she got older, she had visions of a business promoting her love of animals that she shares with her other grandma. She ordered a worm farm that didn’t multiply as she had hoped, so instead she captured dozens of frogs with her brother and kept them alive in containers in our family room. Thankfully, they didn’t breed either, and because of the unwelcome chorus of croaking late every night, we insisted the kids return the slimy creatures to the wild.

After getting a taste of the struggles of inventory and selling, my daughter decided when she was about 11 years old to go into the service industry. She begged me to help her find students she could tutor, and she started out making $15 an hour teaching math and English to younger kids. I advertised her skills on craigslist, arranged schedules, and drove her to the homes of parents grateful for someone who connected so well to their children. She eventually tapped into her amazing musical talents nurtured by her dad to teach piano and clarinet to other kids, making as much as $40 an hour. But a year ago she longed for a “real” job and got hired as a cashier at two different restaurants. She still works at both places and has learned the value of saving money. After years of putting aside so much of those earnings into a piggy bank marked “car,” she indeed bought her first car — a 2014 cherry red Prius — this spring. Her excitement and sense of freedom were palpable the day she drove it off the lot. We all remember our first car, don’t we?

Of course during all those years we enjoyed watching our daughter explore so many different educational and extracurricular pursuits. She played baseball and basketball and soccer in youth leagues for years, while my husband coached many of those teams and I assisted on a few. She went camping and did crafts with the girl scout troop that I led with a co-leader. After she begged me to teach her chess, she won a collection of trophies at a series of youth tournaments and became the No. 1 player on the junior high school chess team, which she joined at 8 years old after a reluctant coach let her attend a practice session with her brother and then insisted on getting a waiver to let this little girl with pigtails travel with the team to play (and beat!) 7th and 8th grade boys from competing schools. She and her brother helped lead the team to four championships during the five years she competed, and the coach called it a dynasty.

During this time she played clarinet in the school concert band and piano in the school jazz band; she sang in multiple school choirs; she got parts in school musicals; and she earned coveted spots in school talent shows after years of private piano and voice lessons. Yeah, we were really busy, because her brother was participating in all those activities as well, and we were driving them everywhere and attending every performance and competition.

Just when I thought life couldn’t get any more hectic, she decided to try out for the Color Guard and Speech teams when she was about to enter high school. She made both teams and eventually became a color guard captain in the marching band and earned a spot on the school’s Winter Guard team, which took home first place at the year-end regional competition. She also joined the Thespians and participated in school plays and musicals. Throughout it all, she kept up with her studies and was always on the honor roll even when she started taking tough AP classes.

At this point, I was concerned she was doing too much, but she insisted she loved all of her activities and didn’t want to drop anything and could handle it all. I probably should have stepped in as the parent and forced her to quit some of her extracurricular endeavors, but I didn’t. And after coming home from an overseas trip with her marching band and facing a seemingly insurmountable pile of school deadlines that had to be completed in a few short days before leaving on a weekend trip with the theater troupe in the winter of her junior year, she shut down. She was unable to get out of bed for days. We were very worried this was more than just exhaustion or overload. We spent the next several months in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals, where she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She missed most school days for the remainder of the year and failed her classes. She didn’t seem to care. For a while we weren’t sure she would graduate, and we were worried whether she would make it through this dark period. It was scary for all of us. I learned mental health challenges are affecting more teenagers than ever before. The tests and therapy sessions and medications did not seem to be helping, and I devoted hours a day to navigating the maze of unending questions and very few answers in the healthcare system. 

By the end of last summer, things started to improve. She was opening up to her therapist and psychiatrist, and they stopped trying new medications and kept her on the same three pills. She was doing some school work. She started sitting at the piano and playing and singing again, and then a tsunami of emotion poured out of her in the next few months. She wrote song after song, putting her pain into music that seemed to pull her out of the abyss. Her songs are beautiful, touching, haunting, and cathartic, I believe. And equally important, she found a new group of friends who are full of laughter and love. Because she quit her involvement in activities, she had time to socialize in a way she had been craving. She finished the remaining few classes needed to graduate, maintained a GPA above 4.0, earned phenomenal scores on her ACT and SAT, and got accepted to five colleges, including the one she chose which awarded her a prestigious, merit-based scholarship that will cover all her tuition for all four years.

We are so proud of her accomplishments, but we are much more thrilled that she seems happy again. We know — now more than ever as we get ready to embrace the so-called empty nest — that it is far more important for our kids and ourselves to experience joy and friendship every day than to worry about achievements and accolades. I believe we all need to define success first in terms of our happiness. I hope you can assimilate this same lesson far earlier in the roller coaster ride of parenting than we did.

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