A Better Way to Think About Success
Why success is rarely individual—and how it's linked with opportunity, access, and equality
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A few weeks ago, I posted this quote from my interview with Sierra Yeo on Instagram:
There seemed to be this mythical career ladder where you would go from front-of-house to barista to senior barista to head barista to manager to getting your foot in the door of a roastery, you’d be a production assistant, and then you work your way up to roasting…
I was like, “Who do I know physically who has done that?” And the answer was a whopping zilch—I didn’t really know anyone who had fit that mold. A lot of the people that I look up to today who have astounding careers in coffee didn’t work that way and they didn’t work their way up that way.
I don’t normally expect quote posts to do well, but this one got over 300 likes. In the comments, I noticed that some folks resonated with what Yeo described—that building a career in the service industry isn’t always linear, and seemingly “successful” pathways are often filled with disappointing wages and unrealized expectations. For many, hearing Yeo share reservations about “the mythical career ladder” reaffirmed their own struggles attempting to build a meaningful career within a volatile industry.
But a handful of commenters took a different stance, along the lines of “I forged my own path; you need to build your own path and stop whining.” It was interesting reading these comments—they reminded me of the classic Boomer complaint that Millennials have no money because they spend it on avocado toast (while ignoring the rising cost of housing, soaring tuition expenses, and stagnant wages coupled with widening income inequality).
We’re often taught that success directly correlates with the amount of effort we put into a project or a job or a creative pursuit. For many, looking critically at the path that led to that success can feel dismissive of personal achievements. Success truly feels hard-won for many—and that’s not to say it isn’t. But success is also a mixture of ingredients: yes, hard work, but also variables like luck, opportunity, connections, and networking, just to name a few.
I’m a writer because of luck. In 2013, I was working at a coffee shop that hosted an event exploring the variety of coffee-growing regions in Guatemala. (I still remember how fascinating the event was—Guatemala has hundreds of areas with different microclimates, each of which affects the final flavor of the bean, and Guatemalan coffees are incredibly diverse because of this fact.) A co-worker of mine knew the person doing the presentation, and asked me if I knew anyone who could write about the event for a trade magazine.
I said I didn’t.
He said, “I can’t write about it myself since I’m working the event. If you’re going to be there anyway, do you think you could do a short write-up?”
I’ve been writing about coffee ever since. Before that, I would have never, ever considered myself a writer. I didn’t even know that it was a career that was available to me.
I work hard to write and produce the work I do, but I wouldn’t be where I am if that opportunity hadn’t fallen into my lap. My success originates in being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes I think about how it could have turned out differently: That former employee could have asked someone else to write the article, or I could have been scheduled to work a different day, or I could have been working at a coffee shop across town instead. I couldn’t have paved this pathway all by myself because I didn’t even know that it was what I wanted to do, or what I felt an affinity for.
I think this is the essence of Yeo’s quote: So much of what we discover about ourselves or find value in comes through moments of happenstance, and rarely follows a strict metric or set career trajectory. And our circumstances, and the people around us, play a key role in those moments.
Capitalism relies on a very binary understanding of success. In its vision, success is the product of hard work, and wealth and happiness its rewards. This is an incredibly individualistic, rather than collectivist, understanding of labor and achievement. And we’ve internalized this messaging, to the point where bottomless hard work feels like the only way to earn anything in life—or even to be worthy as a person.
In reality, success is an inscrutable mix, a decidedly non-linear journey. Many of the folks who commented on that Instagram post shared that they followed the pathway they thought they were supposed to be on, and which Yeo outlined—from barista to manager to working for a roastery—only to find that they weren’t satisfied, even when they’d made it all the way to the top.
All this is to say: It’s worth examining your relationship to success, and why it can feel so threatening when we imagine different definitions of it. We can all feel proud of what we achieve, but using professional success to measure our own value and worthiness doesn’t just harm us—it hems us in, and keeps us from imagining new possibilities in our working lives.
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