Defining Professional Success and Failure

Lessons from a list.


February 2, 2015

A job website called glassdoor recently released their list of the 25 Best Jobs in America for 2015. And while there wasn’t one job listed related to education (which, honestly, isn’t terribly shocking at this point), there was a job that caught my attention coming in at number 21 – Client Services Manager. I paused on this job because it is essentially (if not exactly) what my mother does for a living.

I never knew what to think about what my mom did growing up. I knew she worked, I knew she liked to work, but I was never clear about what her job really was. She also didn’t particularly seem to like her job most of the time. I guess, looking back, she didn’t really like her working conditions: Bad bosses, incompetent co-workers, demanding clients and customers. The job itself, however, she seemed to enjoy, insofar as she could or would.

And she was successful at it. She was recruited on a number of occasions to change companies and received a promotion as a result. My mom, it should be noted, dropped out of college after one year, spent some time drifting aimlessly from one secretarial/clerical job to another before getting pregnant, getting married, and actually starting a career, in part out of economic necessity, but also out of a strong desire to get the heck out of the house.  

She had always seen her career as somewhat of a failure. She struggled to make ends meet after my parents divorced, and she always felt bad that she didn’t have a vast professional network to draw on in order to help us, her children, get ahead. I knew that she had always wanted more for my brother and me: more opportunities, more options, more money, more prestige.

In other words, more success.

Seeing her job listed as one of the best jobs for 2015 has made me reexamine my own definition of success and failure, at least professionally, especially as it has been shaped by my mother’s attitude towards my job and her own job. She has always expressed great pride in my work, even when I was off the tenure-track and thus, to the world inside academia, a “failure.” But it was a recognizable profession that carried a great deal of prestige, real or imagined. She is even more proud of me now that I have successfully changed professions, even it was using means and methods (social networking) that she didn’t really understand.

But I am equally proud of her and her professional success. She might not have scaled the corporate ladder, but she has found a job that she is really good at and has a title (but not necessarily the salary) that comes with a long, successful career. It might not be fancy, or prestigious, or high-profile, but when I look at it now, it resembles what most work is, or at least used to be.

That’s not failure.


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