Teens Are Just as Confused About “Success” as the Rest of Us

teen success trophy ribbon money medal

I’ve never been able to watch Friday Night Lights. All those “teens” with their symmetrical faces and their big dreams for the future — it always made me so melancholy. It’s hard for me to wrangle all that possibility these days, or to think about success in terms of “potential” (I’m 90 years old, thanks for asking). But I miss the feeling that my life could unfold into anything I wanted it to be. What does “success” look like from that perspective? In honor of Success Month, and on the heels of Haley’s investigation into the 30ish POV, I turned to some honest to god, real-life teens to find out. Is their idea of success tangible or fantastical, more immediate or long-term? Read on to see how they answered.

“Success means being someone who loves what they do, who appreciates the world around them and is comfortable with themselves.”
– Rebecca, 16

“In college, it’s a bit difficult to figure this out since most people see success as getting good grades so they can find a good job. To me, though, success is thoroughly enjoying whatever you’re doing. If you don’t, then are you getting anything out of it? For example, I was successful at persuading my friend to stay in and rewatch Gilmore Girls instead of going out to a frat party at 12:30 a.m. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show and even was able to wake up at a decent time to watch more Gilmore Girls. Success is basically just a win-win situation.”
– Dorothy, 18

“Truth be told, I’m realizing that I base a lot of my success on the praise and validation I receive from authority figures. Like, I can write a good essay, but I don’t really believe it until I read the nice comments from my teacher at the bottom. That’s probably not the most sustainable way to define success, so hopefully I’ll find more internal sources of validation as I get older!”
– Lainie, 18

“The cheesy answer would be something like, ‘I am successful if I feel truly happy in life.’ But because all my career goals involve civic engagement and ameliorating inequities in society, I feel comfortable saying I will be successful if I accomplish all my career goals.”
– Estey, 18

“Everybody at my age has a different idea of success. For example, some of my friends are happy with C’s while others tear up at the thought of an A-. For me, success is all about making yourself proud. If you’ve worked hard for what you have, be proud of it. Success looks different for everyone, and that’s okay.”
– Chloe, 16

“Life like a music video (happy or sad). Proud parents.”
– Bella, 17

“It’s hard for me to think about, especially at this weird stage in my life (choosing colleges and trying to picture myself doing something later). I mean, it’s just so different for everyone and varies for what’s happening in your life and my thoughts on this could change next month! I’d say for me, it’s doing what I love and enjoying it. And maybe being self-sufficient? Going into these next four years and choosing what I want to major in. I want to be able to love what I do and not have to get stuck with something so-so and go with it. I’d like to be self-sufficient financially as well. That has been a goal of mine for a while — to not rely on my parents for $$$ as much as I do! And to learn to save properly!!!”
– Lydia, 17

“I think it’s really unfortunate, but so much of what myself and my peers equate success to is financial independence. In school, we’re ingrained to believe getting the best paying job is the highest pillar of success. I see so many of my friends choosing certain majors in college simply for financial benefit. Fortunately, though, I’ve realized I can define my success, whether that be through career opportunities, milestones or just living a life I want.”
– Olivia, 18

“Being authentic and truly enjoying what you are doing. I think that being in school and on social media, it often feels as though you have to pretend or enjoy something that you really don’t. It always seems that there is pressure on you from all sides, be it academic or social. I’m so in awe of people who can just let go of all the pressure and expectation and still be recognized by others as accomplished and worthy. I hope that in the future, I will actually be in a job and be doing things that I enjoy without pretenses, which will, to me, be success.”
– Serena, 17

“Success is making it through the day without feeling crippling anxiety about finishing school and landing a job.”
– Destiny, 19

“One thing that bothers me about the word success is that it puts so much weight on the person who is being described with it. One can have a day filled with success but that doesn’t mean that the same person can’t have bad days. Also when I first thought about what it means to be successful, it felt like there was a list and you had to check all of the boxes to be considered successful. It seems awfully exhausting to have to be all of these things.”
– Isabela, 17

“Success is weird to me. The obvious answer is money. For my brother, success would mean having the capability of going to every Yankee game or getting floor seats to the Knicks. For me, success would mean being able to dress in the most luxurious and divine clothing. I assumed that only money could provide me with this, but now I am starting to understand that success is accomplishing what YOU want. The fact that we are bred to think that success only comes from money disgusts me, and I blame it for many of society’s problems today. It just drives greed and makes new generations of unhappy people.”
Maya, 14

“Success has always taken different forms in my life, but lately it’s not an idea, it’s a feeling. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror 20 years from now and know I didn’t take a second on this beautiful planet for granted. I’ve decided to stop searching for the perfect future and instead search for the perfect now. Life is a gift, and the only way I see myself being successful is if I feel every minute of it.”
Molly, 16

“Success is a scam!! I can successfully parallel park a car and make homemade crepes (not at the same time), but I don’t know how to file my own taxes. I successfully got into college, but what I do with that education will determine my ability to be successful in the adult world. To me, success is just the label on a box you can check next to a task you have completed. It does not measure the flair or enthusiasm with which you complete a task or even go about doing a job. Success is just ‘satisfactory.'”
– Olivia, 18

“What does success even mean? To me, a typical gen-Zer, it means that I have a steady job in the future and that I actually did something to change the way I impact the world and our climate. It also means that you get to work as whatever you want — a nurse, a designer, a teacher, a fitness instructor — and that you get the recognition you deserve. Success isn’t goals other people set for you to reach, it’s the personal goals you reach. To walk outside without makeup on or to finally talk with that therapist. That is success to me.”
– Hedda, 17

“Honestly, it’s not being worried about dumb shit (schedules, time, money, anything annoying) and being able to be relaxed amidst whatever chaos. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in joy being a simmering mirage (thank you, Nick Carraway), and even when you know you’re supposed to be having the time of your life, you don’t feel complete (see: ‘Time to Pretend’ – MGMT). I guess success is being sure of yourself in every sense.”
– Ellie, 17

“Thriving — not just surviving. Bills aren’t at the forefront of your mind, you have a fulfilling career, enough money to travel and eat good food, and able to buy the shiny things that make you happy when you want to buy them.”
– Lucie, 17

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor is the Editor of Clever. She can frequently be found knocking things over in the greater New York City area.

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