I (Didn't) Wake Up Like This: The Relativity of Success

March 30, 2016




It’s Monday morning. My alarm goes off three times – 15 more minutes, 15 more minutes, 15 more minutes. My eyes are sullen, my hair is in a ratty bun at the top of my head, and there’s a crust of exhaustion lining my eyes. As you can tell, mornings are not my jam. I’m already running behind schedule. I grunt loudly to give myself an extra umph to lift my body out of bed. I woke up like that. 

We often try and measure success quantifiably, with a check-list. Go to school, get a job, start a family. Two checks. I will probably live and die by my to-do list and I genuinely feel a personal high off of checking off a completed task. I re-write my to-do list every morning to keep track of what needs to get done, out of a pestering fear that I will forget to do something. Some measure success through the purchasing of an expensive car, or being able to rock the newest shoes in various coordinated colors. Others place success on the number of degrees they’ve earned, how much property they own, or how much money sits tucked away in their savings account. For some, success simply means getting out of bed in the morning, finding the silver lining on a hovering dark cloud, or making it through the day without suffering a panic attack. As I grow to reflect on my life thus far, I’ve recognized that success for me has been embracing the struggle of adversity, never allowing myself to stare defeat in the face too long after stumbling, and giving myself the space to praise and honor the muddiness of a journey that has enabled me to come out sparkling.


When I returned home for Winter Break and I heard iterations from old acquaintances, “Everything just comes so naturally to Cierra. It’s just so easy for her.” I was taken aback. If only they knew. As I go through my day-to-day motions, I often hear similar sentiments like, “Gosh, Cierra you are just so perfect” (See more of this in The Paralysis of Perfection) and “Wow, how do you DO it ALL?” Well, I certainly did not wake up like this. We have all fallen into the social media trap, myself included, of glorifying and highlighting the ‘perfect’ lives to conjure up in other’s minds that we somehow all live glamorously without a care in the world. We post photos of motivational quotes(okay, I admit these are my favorite), we take hundreds of candid photos to capture the right laughing photos to make it appear we are content, and we boast our accomplishments with pride, never even taking a minute to consider putting out to the masses that we actually fail once in awhile. We are so afraid of coming off as not put-together. We see others post their highlight reel and wish for something better, instead of dancing in the life we were given. If I’m too busy staring at someone else’s grass, how will I have time to grow and cultivate my own?


Life is muddy, people. No one wakes up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed without tripping over a speed bump every once in awhile.We don’t always know where people came from, so we cannot judge where they are going.


Newsflash friends: my life is not perfect. My hair is not perfect. My relationship is not perfect. I’ve failed more times than I can count. Those who know me well know that on any given day, one of my nails is broken, I have a flyaway strand of hair, and that I’ve probably just spilled some type of food on myself because I have yet to master the whole neatness thing. The key is that I walk with confidence and move with intention, so many overlook the quirks and flaws in favor of the bigger picture.




The next time you see someone who you believe is put together or what you deem to be successful, I challenge you to question yourself: Is what I’m seeing simply what they project to me? What is it about them that makes them appear successful? 


Success is relative. My success is different from your success which is different from the next person’s success. Often those we deem the most ‘successful’ are essentially those who were resilient and bounced back from failure without batting an eye. We may have never saw them fall, but we saw how they excelled after the fact, never stopping to acknowledge that the success may be their rebound from a crippling situation.


Growing up, my eyes and heart were always set on becoming a professional dancer. I stayed after dance class to work on choreography and watched myself in the mirror as I imitated new moves and tricks I saw, and I spent my free time stretching and researching competition and professional routines. My senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to audition for my dream program, the Ailey/Fordham BFA, after being captivated by my first in-person Ailey performance. These dancers were everything I aspired to be…versatile, strong, and celebratory of a culture that tells the uplifting story of my ancestors. I was mentally and physically prepared. I showed up that morning, hair slicked back, head held high, beaming with confidence. I performed my solo with a vigor I had never dared before. I left with the belief that my chance had finally come to term. The week the decisions were posted to go out, I came home eagerly looking for a large envelope. I asked my mother every single day if she had gotten anything in the mail. She silently shook her head ‘no.’ At the end of the week, my mom finally mustered up the guts to hand me the envelope. It was thin. My letter read, “I’m sorry to inform you…” and I never read the rest, as I collapsed into my mother’s arms in blubbering tears. It didn’t happen.


Flash forward to the summer before my senior year. I was supposed to be preparing for my LSATs, but my life took for an unexpected turn as I was preparing for Miss America instead. I decided to take the GRE and throw my hat into the grad school ring, with hopes that I could gain more experience in education to focus for when I would be able to go to law school. As days became long and grueling and nights were meant for collapsing in my bed after driving hours upon hours for appearances, my GRE test prep fell to the wayside. I walked into the testing room on my scheduled day and was shocked by the computerized exam and was asked to recall mathematical topics I hadn’t thought about since early high school. At the end of an excruciatingly painful four hours, my score popped up on the screen as if it were taunting me. I did terrible. I got into my car, bawled my eyes out, and drove to McDonald’s.


Flash forward to Spring of my senior year. I finally decided that I was going to live out one of my lifelong dreams by moving to the nation’s capital. I applied to every job I could find in the non-profit and governmental sector. I certainly felt qualified. I was going to have a college degree with near-perfect grades, which was backed by leadership and student organizational experience, networks and connections from being a state-wide public figure, and five internships. I thought there would be no problem in my securing a position that would allow me to live comfortably while pursuing my graduate degree. I applied to approximately 30-40 jobs. Guess how many call backs I got? ONE.


I share these stories now for a few reasons. First and foremost, because I did not wake up like this. I did not wake up in a pool of success with a series of fans who looked up to me. I very much woke up on the wrong side of the bed more times than I can count, plagued by failure, negative energy, and hateful comments that still linger with me today. I’ve been rejected, dumped without reason or closure, and told that I would never make it. The week before I ended up winning Miss New Jersey, I distinctly remember curling up in a ball on my kitchen floor, in tears, because I thought it would just be another dream that never became reality. I never let that show. With every failure, it became much easier to let it all roll off my back. With every unfulfilled dream, it became natural instinct to jump back up with a fire and a vengeance to prove those who deterred me wrong.


When I wasn’t accepted into the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, I accepted my spot at Rutgers, changed my major, realized my need and desire to be an advocate and an educator, and made the dance team. Those four years were(yes cliche), the best four years of my life, but most importantly, I learned that my purpose was much greater than to just perform, but it was to share my talent, specifically with little girls who one day might get accepted into programs just like the one I hadn’t been invited into. That gives me more pride and joy than the fleeting moments onstage ever could. When I didn’t do well on the GREs, I changed the schools I applied to and ended up at The George Washington University, with a scholarship, in the heart of the nation’s capital. Here I’ve been able to intern with two life-changing institutions and recognize my talent and love for writing and facilitating change through policy. When I didn’t get a call back from any of the jobs I applied to in DC, that gave way for me to accept my position as a Residence Director, and has allowed me to fall in love with programming, in addition to expand my circle of influence to college students. It’s enabled me to become a stronger and more well-rounded leader, as well as give me experience in an educational setting I was not exposed to previously.


I don’t usually share these stories openly, but recently, as I’ve come to terms with the power of failure, I believe it’s important to highlight and celebrate my shortcomings. If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t be sitting in the office I am now as I finish this post. Allow yourself the grace to fail. Fail miserably. Fall flat on your face. This way, the only place you have to look is up. You won’t be able to taste the sweet victory of success because if you never fail, you will be so accustomed to success that it won’t feel as brilliant and vibrant. Recognize that if that’s not God’s plan for you, then He won’t see it through. No matter how much you pray, work, or wish, some things are not going to happen for you. That’s real. BUT I promise you that when things don’t work out, it’s because you’re meant to be somewhere so much better.


Celebrate the failures because you are one step to closer to the fulfillment of your real success.





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© 2017 by Cierra Kaler-Jones