Penelope Trunk offered some advice on what she’s discovered throughout her successful career and was met with some harsh backlash, as she predicted in the article itself. I presume this is because “success” is a difficult thing to offer advice on, as it doesn’t usually look the same for everybody. The ways in which Penelope has found success are a bit more societally-contrived and there is nothing inherently wrong with her opinion, because it is just that– her opinion. But the way in which she defines success may not work for all of us. At the end of the day, you can achieve a perfect body via surgery, a six-figure salary, successful startups, a husband (… or wife) who you married young and reproduced with but still feel absolutely empty inside because there is nothing in your life that really, truly means something to you. We see this happen to people all the time. I think success is whatever makes you happy, whatever “happy” means for you. For people struggling with depression, success is being able to get out of bed in the morning. Just because it comes easily for others does not mean it is any less for you.
But I also think it may be important to consider who Penelope is and where she is coming from. She is a woman who is known for self-diagnosed Asperger’s, tweeting a miscarriage and being happy about it because of “fucked up 3 week hoop jumps” to get an abortion and chronicles of her dating and sex life that include anecdotes about her ex, her brazilian waxes and intimate moments with her new love interests.
I would like to say that I first and foremost respect her, although I disagree with her advice. I would like to offer my own though, on how to apply her ideas under the umbrella of understanding that success is not definitive.
1. Do your “homework” in the non-traditional sense.
If what gives you pride is seeing A’s on your report card then that is what you should be doing. Some people don’t just go to college to get a degree to be qualified for something, they actually want to learn about a subject. If that’s the case (or even if it isn’t, and you’re just interested) then yes, do your homework. But beyond that, what I really mean to say is do your homework on things that matter to you. If that means researching and learning about your legal rights, political ideas, Foucault, literature, how to highlight your hair yourself, how to date someone cool, how to become a writer… it does not matter what it is that you are working on, but it does matter that you put effort into what you love, you won’t get anywhere without it.
2. If plastic surgery is what you need or want to be able to feel good about yourself each day, then by all means, go for it. If you’d rather accept your body as it is and show the world that there is more to you than a perfect face, that is wonderful as well.
I’ve had a few friends who have gotten procedures done and have been overwhelmingly happy with the results– they “fixed” things that plauged them everyday of their lives. Doing so was very important for their own self esteem, and I applaud them for loving themselves enough to take those steps to change their lives. If plastic surgery is what you want to do to for a job, for your own well being– whatever, there is simply nothing wrong with it.
However, the idea that it’s necessary to be successful is just silly. For some people (at least for me) success is being content with who I am and how I’m made and not constantly wanting to change myself. That’s just as valid, if not more so.
3. Go to business school if you want… or go to a liberal arts school… or don’t go to school… there is no right and wrong time to do so or right or wrong place to go, only when and where you want.
Maybe a higher degree of education would aide me in my work, but that’s not what I want right now, because I’m happy with what and where I am, and maybe you are too. There are valid points in the idea that an MBA will help you attain a better salary, surpass entry-level jobs and generally qualify you more for your chosen profession. There is nothing incorrect about that. But go if you want, or don’t if you don’t. That’s what really matters here.
4. Start looking for yourself seriously.
People come and go and that’s the truth of the matter. If real love is what you’re looking for, it’s not only going to be there in a certain age bracket. It will be there when you get there. And if love is the last thing you’re looking for, you’re in luck, because in our society you can work and support yourself and pay your own bills and date a lot of cool people and have friends and plans and a life outside of being a husband or wife and I didn’t mean to rhyme that. Essentially, marriage should not be an accomplishment as much as it should be a beautiful exchange of vows of unconditional love with someone you intend to do that with. People are not successes to be had, they are to be cherished and loved… not checked off as another “success” on your roster.
5. Do take your maternity leave if you have it, and make sure that you are receiving what you are entitled to. But don’t feel guilty if what’s best for you is getting out of the house and letting someone else care for your baby.
That’s just what works best for some women, and it’s perfectly fine– either way you roll the dice, as long as you and your child are happy and cared for, nothing else matters.
6. Marry someone with whom you would not have to guard your marriage obsessively.
If there is enough distrust to elicit “obsessive” guarding, well, I’m sure there are deeper running problems that need to be sorted out. I cannot be the first one to say that one of the foundations of a healthy relationship is trust in one another… no guarding necessary. You can’t cage people, you have to let them free: whether that means literally or just in your mind. If they’re worth having, they’ll be there.
7. Austerity is important, but so is the right to use your money to facilitate what will make you happy.
There’s this thing about life, and it’s that we’re always between what will make us happy now versus what will aide us best in the future. In terms of finances, this is a balance that people have to work toward achieving. I will never deny that savings is important, debt repayment is important and 401K plans are important… but so is being happy right now. And the truth is, sometimes (usually) the things that make us happy require some money at some point: if you love to read, you have to buy the book, if you love to travel you need a plane ticket, etc. Don’t deprive yourself and wait for “someday” when you can enjoy what you’ve earned… but don’t be irresponsible either. If you do either to an extreme, you’ll pay heavily (pun intended) in the end.
8. Do a startup with someone who is as invested as you are, who believes in your company/product as much as you do, and who you know will be a great partner.
Gender and sex need not matter for this. Indeed, there is a wage difference and many more women are focusing on work and family than men, I will not deny that to be true, but to say that women are incapable of running their own business without the hand of a man is just preposterous.
9. Begin a lifestyle business if that’s what your passionate about.
Not because a man is or isn’t involved.
10. Homeschool if you feel compelled, or send your children to public or private school… both have pros and cons, and as a parent, it is your decision to make.
Indeed there is a specialized attention that can be given to children when they are homeschooled, but at the same time, there are social factors and financial restraints that sometimes make public or private school a better option for many families. Don’t feel guilty if you aren’t doing the “right” thing for your child. As long as they are learning and flourishing, we need not judge how we choose to educate. Understandably, kids have different needs. Each parent is responsible for seeing to them, not following what other parents think is best.
11. Spend your money on household help if you are unable to tend to it yourself or simply because you can afford to and want to, and have botox injections if that’s what makes you feel good about yourself. But just know that having poison injected into you will not better or worsen your relationship if it is one worth having.
12. Break the mold in every decade of your life, and create for yourself the life you’ll get the most out of.
The best way I can sum up the prior two points and this article in general is that if you continually work toward achieving what society believes to be “success” you will always feel you are missing something, because “success” is doing what you thought you couldn’t– something that you care enough about to worry about failing at. Something that would seem unremarkable to anybody else but for you, its extraordinary, because you overcame the odds, whether they were society’s or the ones in your own mind. If your success is that you got through another day today, congratulations. Don’t feel belittled because you don’t fit into the mold of someone else’s success. Create your own.