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How to Define Success: A Lesson from My 90-Year-Old Grandmother

Inside: A lesson in how to define success on your own terms from Oma.

“I never liked raising my hand in school.” – Oma

“Why not?” – Me (the type A school nerd who always had her hand in the air)

“Because I knew the answer. That was what mattered. Why did I need to prove that to anyone?” – Oma

She’s Got Nothing to Prove

As I sat next to my grandparents after we had spent many months apart, I was left speechless for a moment.

The comment was so her, reflective of her candor, fierce independence, and “I’ve got this” mentality that she took with her traveling alone to the US over 60 years ago.

It’s what got her through hiding on a farm for three years during World War II. It’s what has helped her raise four daughters, at one point three under three. It’s what has made it clear to everyone who has ever known her that she is not about to hear your nonsense.

How to Define Success on Your Own Terms

What surprised me though is that I’ve never thought about how our education system is like this. How success is based on proving something to someone else instead of proving something to yourself.


Being extroverted enough to raise your hand in class doesn’t determine success. Being competitive enough to want to shoot your hand up higher than someone else doesn’t determine success. Being eager for praise doesn’t determine success.

What does determine success is what she has always demonstrated.


Hard work.


Breaking rules when they simply aren’t good rules.

Being unapologetically yourself.

Taking the Lessons Forward

Every time I walk through my grandparents’ door I learn something new.

They have taught me Dutch words, Triominos, history lessons, piano tunes, and how to have a true and lasting partnership built on a foundation of respect.

I’ll add this newest lesson to my memory bank as I continue to figure out how I define success in this life and watch how my kids define it for themselves.

I hope we can all see, like she did so many years ago, that success is not about the praise or the likes. It’s not about the A’s or the approving head nods.

Success is about learning, growing, and being confident in yourself.

And perhaps success is having just a touch of sass in your back pocket, ready for the moment that someone tells you your success has to look any different.

Read More:

What Does “Having It All” Mean To You?

“You Don’t Want to Throw Your Career Away”

Cheers to 60 Years

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