Earnings Beyond The Wallet: How Do You Measure Success In Life?

Earnings Beyond The Wallet is a guest post by Colleen from KongSavage.com. She wants to know how do you measure success if not by monetary means.

Earnings Beyond The Wallet

How do you measure success when money is not your forté? Numbers overwhelm me. My fourth grader cruises about YouTube looking for videos on binary code, pi, and the fourth dimension. He does this for FUN at age nine, gets excited, and tries to share his newfound knowledge.

When he speaks, I hear, “Ooglety bogfogf ones fndi zeroes ovoeicwi xmy diameter. Do you know what a hexadecimal system is?” No idea. For the life of me I cannot remember his height or weight. I only know that I cannot carry him anymore and that when he hugs me standing up, my chin is in his hair.

Like a lot of artists, I'm a little short on financial savvy. As a new divorcee I am all too aware that as a person without a job, I am completely dependent on the alimony my ex-husband provides. The situation is humbling—on dark days, humiliating.

After nine unsuccessful months of applying for graphic design jobs, I shifted to plan B to find work as an illustrator. I figure if I'm going to spin my wheels, I may as well spin them in the direction I want to go. The clock is ticking as I struggle to establish a business before the spousal support ends.

In March I complete my first year of being an officially middle-aged person. Because I spend enough time flailing about in uncertainty, I am dedicating this post to the idea of Success. I asked friends, “How do you measure success in your life?”

The most common response boiled down to “Happiness.” My friends are largely artists like myself—visual artists, dancers, musicians, film-makers. Those of us who haven't been ground down by the pragmatics of earning a living, are still clawing our way towards professional recognition. Most artists aren't rich, but life feels rich. While I feel shaky these days, I marvel that I am exactly who I want to be. How is that?

Four Decades, Four Feathers In My Cap For Flight…

How do you measure success in life when money isn't your thing? Here are the things I think about when I ask how do you measure success.

1) MASTERY OF CRAFT: Eat Your Fear, Do Lots of Bad Work, Then Fly

Colleen Kong-Savage

I'm good at several things—pontificating on paper, executing roundhouse kicks, transforming cardboard boxes into toys, commandeering the dance floor, sculpting gingerbread, and making pictures. The talents that make me proudest are the ones in which I have invested the most hours and most heart: picture-making and martial arts.

A friend wanted to purchase a drawing and asked what I had available. Like a squirrel I dug out sketchbooks from under the bed, the closet, behind the piano. There were so many—pages and pages of so-so drawings, awkward lines, false starts, flat compositions, and every now and then we would find a gem that made us go, “Ahhhh.”

For every one good piece that I make, there must be 25 pieces that are “Enh” or downright “Bleah” and seen by no one. This is the only way we master a craft: do things badly, learn, master, stretch farther, do more bad work, beat our heads, learn, master, repeat. The head-beating is crucial to the process. If I never want to fling work out the window, it means I am treading stagnant water, thus failing to grow.

My black belt is my other Grand Achievement. Ironically, in earning a black belt, one realizes how little they have learned of their discipline (insert head-beating here). But every time I show up for class I mark it on an attendance sheet, making a visual record of my efforts. I spend a significant portion of my time in the dojang experiencing faint dread.

Every time I have to spar or break wood, I'd really rather not. I'm a coward. I hate smacking my shins into my opponent's knees, and the hematoma I got from failing to break a board with the first strike was supremely gross. I hate leaping over piles of kick pads into a roll because I'm afraid I'll break my collarbone. However, I eat my fear over and over because it is the only way to fly over the obstacles.

When someone asks, “How do you measure success?”, I point to these accomplishments.

2) COMMUNITY BENEFITS: the Boomerang of Giving

I am pissed that in my hunt for a decently paid graphic design position, pro bono art direction of school journals is worth squat on a resumé (I've been a stay-home mom for nine years, so the section for professional work experience is thin). Nonetheless, I believe in volunteering for my communities: my taekwondo school, the New York public school system, New York in general.

As a martial arts teacher I am proud of empowering awkward kids with control over their bodies and revealing powerhouses within pixies. In my son's elementary school, I led class art projects that raised several thousand dollars for enrichment programs.

Other public schools and community centers look less bleak because I designed murals for their walls, and I know the couple gallons of my donated blood came in handy somewhere. I want to take care of my communities because they are extensions of my home and family.

I learned and took inspiration from my own taekwondo teachers, who were generous with their knowledge and encouragement. My son studies at a fantastic school in part because of parent volunteers. And if my life ever depended on a blood transfusion, some stranger somewhere will offer me a pint. We get back what we give.

3) A FANTASTIC CIRCLE OF PEOPLE: Stay True, Nurture Friendships that Feed You, Drop the Bad Eggs Because They Stink

I travel in fantastic circles. I love the people with whom I surround myself. They inspire me with their talent and personal histories. They nourish me with kindness. Further, they are funny as hell and understand human nature. They mentor me, respect me, and grow my brain. When I fall, they pull me along when I'm out of fuel.

My friends and family amaze me, and I am honored to know them. I do not take them for granted.  Friends are found and earned. Family is given, but shaped. When one is caught in poisonous relationships, plenty of work goes into extricating oneself. If I want friends, I must reach out. “Open your hands if you want to be held,” wrote Rumi. Building friendships is work, but you don't notice it when the relationships are good ones.

I watched my son struggle to find his own friends. After a couple years of lonely recesses, I am relieved he finally found his niche. My son is not shy, but he is an atypical boy. He is averse to sports, and until recently, also averse to video games. Gender stereotypes peeve him to no end. He grew his wavy locks past his shoulders, cutting them only because last Halloween he wanted to be David Tenant from Dr. Who.

Finding His Own

He proudly danced in the Nutcracker ballet and insisted on his right to wear pink in the face of ridicule. My nine-year-old is so sure of himself. I am impressed that he never settled for the company of various jerks who only gravitated to him because no one else would put up with their crappy personalities. Thankfully my son preferred to spend time alone than with people who disrespected him. Now he has several great school friends. His experience reminds me that friends are not a given.

You know those mugs and plastic trophies that say, “World's Best Mom.” They are stupid, ubiquitous, and cheesy. But then the words “Best Mom” pop out of my boy's mouth, and I am smitten. I am related to a spectacular human being—smart, strong, compassionate, creative. I like to think I have something to do with it. “You're a great parent,” my son told me recently. “I hope one day I'm as good a parent as you.” Considering my past insecurities, where I felt I was only impersonating a mother, I was in heaven.

4) GOOD SELF-ESTEEM Is Hard to Come By

From ages 15 to 25 I stewed in mild depression, doing well in school, but frequently crying for no reason; feeling disconnected, though I had friends. If I was not myself—literally—I knew I would have liked Colleen. However I was myself, and I hated being Colleen with the fidgety dark brain.

I would panic when I imagined my next sixty years floating in an abyss of loneliness and wished I could override my self-preservation instinct to hit the self-destruct button. I agonized over every sentence that I pushed out of my mouth, fearful of how others perceived me. Day-to-day misunderstandings became emotional paper cuts, just fine enough that I did not notice how much they bothered me. It hurt just to be alive.

I got help in graduate school. I wish I could say I found my own way out of the cave, but it was beyond me. Even though New York City is brimming with busy therapists, I still feel the stigma of seeking a professional hand. Yet that help is what guided me towards happiness.

I know who I am now. I'm emotional, but I understand what makes me tick. This helps me understand what makes other people tick, and it frees me from fear of their judgement. I am sensitive in a society that prefers a thick hide. I tear up over minor chords in music, but I also laugh a lot harder than most folk.

The best thing about my depression is that it taught me to fully appreciate happiness. To love and respect oneself is a gift. Measure success by how often you forgive and support yourself.

Last Thoughts On Being a Successful Human Being …

While contemplating this essay on success, I heard writer Kate Messner preach “The Spectacular Power of Failure.” Her message: Don't internalize failure. The work fails, not you, and failure is an inherent part of your work. At the same time, don't forget to celebrate the successes in your journey, especially the small ones.

Have you ever heard that question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I'm doing it right now: making art. That fact in itself is a success. I look forward to the day I can also say that I make money making art… Actually, I do! And if I multiply the income by a thousand I might be able to afford the skin I am wearing. It is a start.

The thing about success is that you have to keep working at it. The past few months I have tried to tack more work hours onto my week. I replaced six weekly hours of taekwondo with a 30-minute workout video called the “30 Day Shred.” It breaks my heart, feeling my muscle, skill, and any hint of cool slip away. Wouldn't it be grand if I could sit on my butt after earning my black belt and remain worthy of it? Unfortunately we have to keep working in order to maintain what we gain. I have such a long way to go.

Celebrating Life More

However, I can celebrate what I have accomplished. For my 41st birthday I challenged myself to make a list of 41 achievements. I won't bore you with it, but I am relieved to say that it wasn't too difficult to write. I highly recommend drawing up your own list, especially if you have forgotten that you yourself are a spectacular human being.

After I admitted to my ex-husband that I was thinking of divorce, I texted a friend, “I've just jumped out of the airplane. I hope my parachute opens.” I had no job. I didn't know if my ex would seek retribution for leaving the marriage. Further, I didn't know if my son would survive the heartbreak.

Happily, the afterlife seems to be proceeding smoothly. I am still holding my breath, not quite sure if my parachute will hold, but wow… the view from here is amazing.

Readers, how do you measure success?

Colleen Kong-Savage
Illustration & Design

Related: Turtle Ship Review (Colleen successfully illustrated a children's book!)

25 thoughts on “Earnings Beyond The Wallet: How Do You Measure Success In Life?”

  1. Sometimes being financially stable makes us forget who we really are. And you’re right Colleen, we shouldn’t use money to measure success (it’s called bragging). Whenever someone achieved success, he/she must take a look back on the people, experiences, ideas, etc. that makes them to be a successful individual.

    1. Hi, Chellie! To be honest if I ever achieve financial stability through my own work effort, that would be a big SUCCESS for me :) And yes, I am always impressed to find time and time again that there are a lot of generous people in this world who are happy to help each other succeed.

  2. Dear Coleen: you are among the lovliest, most gracious & talented people I(and many others)’ve ever had the privilege to have as a friend. Keep putting it out there, purely and honestly as you are, and good things are sure to follow. And oh yeah, come on down to IMAC and share the awesome roundhouse love . . . Miss You.

    1. Awww… thanks so much, Don (I’ll put the five dollars I promised you for writing that in the mail tomorrow). And thanks for taking over the Sat. kids’ classes. You’ve got a great compassionate authoritative vibe which they need! I miss you, too, and I just started back up at IMAC last month. Thursday’s the one day I’m allowing myself to be there. Hope I can catch you some time.

      1. Love those kids, and enjoying it a lot. I aspire to your gentle good humor and confidence in dealing with them – mixing encouragement, praise, focus and guidance. Seeing them improve and grow is the best. And there’s always a great Una story or two in the offing . . .

  3. What success means to you is a very important question to ask as we only get a tiny slice of time to spend on this Earth. It should be spent doing what you feel is right and valuable. Money is great and is certainly necessary, but what is a million dollar 401k if you are alienated from your family and die earlier than you should?

    1. Your comments make me think of my son. I don’t remember mentioning this article to him, but perhaps he’s overheard me talking about it. He asked me last night whether I thought he would be successful when he grew up, not really defining “success.” But of course I said “yes” (can you imagine folks who would answer “no” to their kids? Yikes!), citing his smarts, creativity, hard work, and respect for fellow human beings. Coincidentally, he also thought about death last night. Its inevitability upsets him. “I don’t want anyone to die, except for meanies,” he said. And I remembered his past question, “Why do people have to die?” to which I had answered that death makes us value life. I don’t think that makes anybody feel better, but at least it helps us make some sense of it. I hear you: that inevitable death is a great motivator for us to make the best of life while we are still here.

  4. Raising a good kid is success; everything else is just incidental. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from thinking otherwise.

  5. Colleen,

    I read your post several times…… Taking time to gather my thoughts. I have been where you are…. I’m divorced. Common affliction.

    It’s tough at first. But, you will slowly rebuild your life. It gets better. You will have to make some pragmatic decisions; and you have a child, so maintaining a friendship with your ex is very important (even when you would rather not).

    This is a finance blog; obviously the comment sections will be full of money optimizing strategies. But money/wealth is really just a tool. You will have to make many difficult decisions. You may have to pursue a non-artistic occupation, at least for a while.

    I don’t believe the size of one’s bank account is necessarily a good measure of success. If you can adequately support yourself, and your son, then I think, follow your own path. Do what makes you happy! I like the black belt thing.

    Life is about experience. I wish you well.

    1. Hi, Ace.
      Yeah divorce sucks—and I’m one of the lucky divorcees who hasn’t gotten tangled up in vitriol and drawn-out negotiations with their ex. If I think about it too much, I get rather panicky thinking about the possibility that when the spousal support runs out, if this freelancing doesn’t work out, the only steady job I’ll be able to land is in retail sales (at least the minimum wage seems to be getting a small bump up). But if I don’t dwell on that, I’m quite thrilled to be afforded the opportunity and motivation to make it as a freelance artist/writer. It’s nice to see there is life after divorce. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Success isn’t always tangible or black and white. We each define successes differently as well due to what we prioritize, where we live, what our interests are, and what’s going on in our lives. You’ve done a lot in your life and sounds like you’re doing a stellar job as a mom and utilizing your talents in lots of ways. Keep up the great work!

    1. Good point! Each person’s version of Success is different from the next because we all have different priorities and live among different communities and have different resources at our disposal. Thanks for the encouragement!

  7. Hi Colleen,

    Thanks for sharing your struggles, your thoughts, and your goals for the future. I enjoy reading posts from people who are not so focused on money (like myself). Personal finance relates to all of us.

    Money is just an easy barometer to measure success. After a certain amount, surely someone with $1 billion is not 10X more special than someone with $100 million etc. So much of money has to do with luck as well. Being in the right place, having a certain thirst for money etc.

    The older I get, the less I want my life to be focused on money. As I wrote in my About page, money stopped being a driving factor for me back in 2011. I was seriously getting sick of it. My main drive is achieving freedom, and working on things that make me happy.

    Major props that you got a Black Belt! Interesting how you say once you get to BB, you realize how little you learn, which means … wow, the rest of us really don’t know much at all!

    I have to imagine that the pride you have for your son just can’t be beat. Good for him for not putting up with bad kids and doing his own thing!



    1. Thanks, Sam. I like that you make room in your personal finance blog for posts on relationships and the big picture. After all, what is money, but a means to happiness? It’s easy to forget that. In fact, I imagine that for some folks, the pleasure comes in the actual accrual of finances, almost like a game where whoever has the most toys by the time he dies, wins.

  8. Whether you are going through a divorce or just living life, measuring success can be difficult. I think most of us fall back on dollars and cents even if it doesn’t fit. You cannot measure parenting success based on how much you earn. I think you should measure success based on milestones, objectives or goals you accomplish. Did I read to my child every night, take him to museum or similar experience 12 times a year or help with the homework? You can just check it off a list and feel good about it!

    1. I wonder what percentage of people truly believe that success is measured by the size of their paycheck. I asked a good number of friends and not a single one named money as a measure of success–then again, I don’t know anyone in the business of making money. Or it might be one of those things where intellectually, you don’t believe that money matters–you WANT to believe it does not matter–but when you hang out with a crowd in a higher income bracket, your knee-jerk reaction is to feel less successful than everybody around you.

      But you’re right. Success is ultimately about meeting your goals, whether it is being a good parent or a good chunk of change.

  9. You are so creative in your writing and graphic design, Colleen.
    I’m better at numbers, … well not so much better, apparently.

    I wish you well on your journey to self-sufficiency.

    1. Colleen Kong-Savage

      Thank you so much!

      By the way, I think creativity comes in all fields, including business, math, and science. Where ever there’s a problem to be solved, there’s a “what if…” and that’s where the creativity comes in. If there is room to wonder and ask questions, there’s room to imagine and tinker.

  10. The Wallet Doctor

    You’ve asked a great question here. Too often people forget to step back and figure out what success really looks like for them. Its defintely a question worth considering and you have made some very interesting points here. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    1. Thanks for your comments. Success in the creative fields—i.e. being able to live off your earnings from creative work—is hard to come by. I have to remind myself now and then of all the things I DO have going for me. I don’t ever want to take them for granted, which is easy to do when you’re frustrated from chasing a dream that hasn’t sat still long enough, dammit, for you to catch hold.

  11. Thomas @ i need money ASAP!

    In my opinion financial success isn’t just about how much you have but also how you were able to accumulate it. Being financially successful is about budgeting, saving, investing, frugality etc.

    1. Colleen Kong-Savage

      I agree. Having a trust fund is nice, winning the lottery even better, but knowing that you’ve fattened up your bank account through years of work and conscientious saving/spending is a lot more satisfying. Also, I used to get a lot more satisfaction from the small pile of money I earned from art sales than I did from the bigger pile earned doing graphic production work or retail—even if they are worth the same to the cash register.

  12. Great post, Colleen! I consider all of the things you listed very important. For creatives, a mastery of craft is hard to accomplish, especially perfectionists. Having a great circle of friends and family is also extremely important. This was a great Sunday morning read.

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