Redefining Success

(This is the text of a speech Jill and I wrote for her to deliver at an Austin Women’s Blogging event.)


I did some career counseling with my son the other day. I think it went pretty well. He’s four years old… almost five… and frankly I think it’s about time he started to take this whole “responsibility” thing seriously.

No, but it went down like this.  We were at one of our favorite burger places, my husband was there, the kid… really just into his food at first but at one point he got interested in how the trash was taken care of.  He wanted to know how the trash can worked, and if they took it out the front, and who was responsible for it.

We discussed it, and he suggested maybe he could do that job someday. I told him, in my kidding voice of course, “Sure, mommy did some interesting jobs before what she does now so maybe you will take out the trash here until you…”

Now, I caught myself there because what I was about to say had a couple layers of not cool on it. I was about to say something like “until you get a real job.” Not cool because a) who needs that kind of pressure when you’re only four years old (almost five) and not cool because b) we know a bunch of really nice people who work at that burger place and they all actually seem really happy to be there.

In fact, that’s one of the main reasons we eat there. The whole staff seems genuinely pleased with their jobs.  So, I almost said that, but I didn’t.

My husband steps in and he’s a journalist in a previous career so he loves to draw answers out of the kid like it’s a Barbara Walters special. What kind of tree would you be?  Do you remember the transition from diapers to pull ups?  I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but I’m only 4 years old… all that.

Anyhow, he jumps in asking the kid “Do you remember what you said you wanted to be when you grew up?”

“A policeman.”

We all knew that one, it’s been knocking around for a while.  He likes the hats.

My husband dug further, already knowing the answer he was after. “Yes, I remember,” he said, “Do you remember what else?”

A… firefighter?”  Less confident, the four year old doesn’t quite follow.

“Well you could be a firefighter too if you want, but I’m thinking of when you told me you wanted to be a zzzzzzz…”

The addition of the first consonant trips the recognition wire. “A zookeeper!” The four year old, almost five, blurts out.

That one is a surprise to me. I’m asking, “When did he say he wanted to be a zookeeper?”

Husband says “When we were at the zoo last time. It’s because he saw there were places in the zoo you could go only if you work there.”

Makes sense. You can’t go in there unless you work here. Well, alright, I’ll just get myself a job here then!  Kid-logic.  Maybe good adult logic, too I don’t know.

My own resume is really pretty weird anyhow.  Some of you here tonight may know me from PBS where I’m “Buttermilk Biscuit” on the “Biscuit Brothers” Television show.  Some of you may know me as a Realtor since that’s my full time profession these days.  If we’ve been on play dates together you may know me first as a mom.  If you dug into the Google results about me you’d find out I’m a small business owner, a non-profit event planner, theater performer at Zach Scott and the Zilker Hillside.  I started my adult career journey as a high school teacher and drama coach.  Before that came the many diverse jobs I was alluding to before.

Of course, many of you are just smiling and nodding and thinking “Jill Leberknight Who?”  That’s okay, too.  I completely understand.  I don’t know who you are either but maybe we can change that!

You know it’s kind of surreal for me these days to share this list because it includes so many careers that I could never have dreamed for myself.   I feel certainly there are many of you about there who are following a similar, winding path with no idea where the next turn will lead.  I hope, for you as it is for me, that each new direction teaches you something new about yourself.  I’ve become convinced in my own life that a good portion of my journey is about learning how to deal with the unexpected.  I don’t necessarily like change and I typically need a lot of time to turn the ship around.

So that brings me to two weeks ago when I was sitting and watching the endless recaps of the Royal wedding on TV.  I got an email asking if I had any interest in speaking at an event on the 14th.  This one.

Now, even though I was just professing to my girlfriend on the phone the day before how busy my life had gotten and I how I must learn how to say NO and goodness I have never been a speaker at an event before, I did the eulogy at my mom and my grandmothers funeral but nothing like this……. quietly a little voice deep in that special place that we call intuition was saying YES. YES!

I replied to the email almost shocked that I was putting it in writing.  Why did I do it?  Because more than all of the things I listed about me earlier I am a girl obsessed with rituals and ceremony.

Okay, let me back up a bit and explain what I mean by this cause I realize that you are missing some important pieces of the puzzle about why speaking here this evening could be considered a ritual for me.

Last year I turned a corner in my Real Estate business.  Before last year my business was struggling. It certainly wasn’t the get rich career that I and many others thought it would be.  Our family lived primarily on my husband’s income – and he was making a TV show for PBS. I don’t know how much you know about the “lucrative” business of PBS but suffice it to say it doesn’t pay… well really anything sometimes.  There’s a reason they call it “non-profit.”  Looking back now though there was something easy about that time in our lives. We had no money so the answer to all choices that involved money was NO.

But last year a curious thing happened when I experienced success. I felt the need to own things that represented my business achievements. All of a sudden I felt this very strong pull to have a nice car. To have the IKEA decorated home with wood floors and brushed nickel everything. I felt the need for a diamond necklace, fake nails, pristine skin. Why because a successful realtor wouldn’t drive around in a 2003 Subaru Forester, what would people think?

And this pull to present myself in a particular way to the outside world was playing out in other ways as well. Not wanting my real estate clients to know that I performed on a children’s TV show. Not wanting them to know that both of my college degrees were in acting and not business. Not wanting my Alma Maters to know that my classical training in theater was being used in children’s entertainment.  Not wanting my “theater” friends to know that I was really paying the bills with a Real World Job and not my TV gig. Not wanting my mom friends to know how much time I was spending away from my son. Oh man, my life was beginning to become a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities. Always reminding myself of which role I was walking into and what NOT to talk about for fear it would affect someone’s opinion about me and my ability to accomplish the job at hand.

Now during this wonderful business year I also had the pleasure of celebrating my oh-so-important 40th birthday. And after several months of paining over how I wanted to celebrate this special occasion a light bulb went off and I decided to celebrate it live, in front of an audience. I felt that so much had changed in my life that I wanted to create a kind of ritual or ceremony to say goodbye to the yuck of the past and publicly profess my goals for the future. The whole event was a wonderful process and I really discovered my deep desire and if I might be so bold to say NEED to share important life moment publicly. So when I got the email from Kim and Catherine asking me to speak at this event I knew this was a chance to share my new decision.

And here it is.

Maybe it’s life on the other side of 40 but I don’t want to live by other people rules and definitions anymore and I want to write my own definition of success and happiness.

I think that’s why I said “yes” to speaking here this evening to a room full of Austin women writers.  Perfect place to start re-writing my new definition of success.

More than that, I want every single person to leave here motivated to go out and achieve success in every single aspect of their lives. Success in relationships, success in work and career, success in places you didn’t even know could even be successful.  And I don’t just mean positive strokes or “everyone’s a winner, in their own way.” I mean real, tangible, measurable, successful results right there where you can see them.

Of course, the first thing we have to do is define what we mean by “success.”  Too often, I fear, we allow the world to do that for us.  Success is defined by money, or fame, or a certain level of achievement as measured on someone else’s scale, but rarely is real, everyday success celebrated.  I don’t want this to become about “whatever makes you feel good” either, because feeling good or feeling comfortable is not necessarily success.

History is full of great success stories that involve a lot of pain and suffering.  President Lincoln endured unimaginable anguish during his life in his battle to keep our young country together… but he succeeded.  The women over a hundred years ago who marched to secure the rights you and I take for granted were ridiculed and imprisoned… but they succeeded.  The woman who gets up every day before dawn to get her kids ready for school and then catch a bus to the first of her several jobs in a long 14 hour workday may feel like she’s about to die from exhaustion but if her kids are cared for… she’s succeeding.

Success should be a thing that is defined by each and every one of us in our own way and there’s no reason to allow others to judge our accomplishments.  To do so is not only a disservice to ourselves, it’s an insult to everyone who came before us and it’s a poor lesson for those who will come after.

With that in mind, that my success is dependent solely upon me and the height of the bar I set for myself, I’m able to break out this list of reminders.

1. A woman can hold as many jobs as her time and talents allow. I can be a successful business woman and artist and even take care of the trash at a burger place. One does not negate the others.

2. A woman can be a good mom and wife and also have a career.

3. A successful business person comes many forms of dress and appearance. She can choose to spend her earnings on herself, her clients, or her community or church and that’s her business.

4. Money is not the only measure of success in business. You know, here I’m reminded of the many times that people talk to me about the “Biscuit Brothers TV Show” and wonder, when it will get national attention.  They mean well, and they’re just saying it should get all the accolades it deserves – but our show can be just as much of a success as a local TV show. Any opportunity to change a person’s life for the better is a blessing.

5. As nice as savings accounts, insurance and retirement plans are I never want them to replace or get in the way of a strong network of good friends and family ties.

Now, I need everyone’s co-operation.  We’re all going to close our eyes for moment and do some imagining.  I want you to get as comfortable as you can, close your eyes or just clear your mind, and picture yourself successful.  Start with something small if it helps – the action or act of overcoming an obstacle or short-term challenge that may be on your mind today.

Make the picture in your mind as clear and vivid as though you were looking at a photograph.  You’re not looking for the answer; I don’t care HOW you solved the problem that’s on your mind, I just want you to see what it looks like when it’s taken care of.

Now expand that short term image and imagine a picture or a video from sometime in the future.  You are now “successful”- you’re a successful person – and you’re looking at an image of yourself being successful.  Maybe it’s a clip from MSNBC or CNN or maybe it’s just a photograph in Time Magazine or somewhere else – but that image of yourself needs to be as clear and colorful as though it were sitting on the table right now in front of you.

Can you see it? Does everyone have a bright, clear picture in their mind?

Now look carefully at your face in the picture.  What do you notice?  I’d be willing to bet that most people here have a common image in their mind right now.  Are you thinking of a smile? A satisfied expression?  Is there a look of accomplishment in your eyes?

I said before that success sometimes equals pain, but in the end it’s really our own journey and I hope each and every one of you go out and achieve all that you were meant to do.  Define success for yourself, use only what you need, go and get a job just so you can see what’s hidden behind the “employees only” signs.

It’s a big world out there and we change it one idea at a time.