I grew up around the largest concentration of white poverty in the United States. My family comes from Central Appalachia in eastern Tennessee, a place that – despite the economic prowess of the United States – remains mired in poverty, lack of educational opportunity, and poor healthcare access. For many people in this region, success simply means having enough money to put the most basic of foods on the table. This was the case with the family into which I was born: the house I was brought home to as an infant was set on an old tree farm and lacked any form of indoor plumbing. An underground well near the front porch, along with buckets to collect rain, supplied the water deficit. My household was food insecure – it was only through the help of local churches and the kindness of others that we managed to scrape by.
At a very young age, I thoroughly absorbed my surroundings and understood their implications: success meant monetary security, and one only attained such success by being the best. At everything. All the time. I could not have been older than four or five when I decided that failure was simply not an option. During the years that followed, I made sure I was on top at all times. Step one on the road to “success”: my top grades throughout my pre-teen years ultimately won me, a child living below the poverty line, a full scholarship to attend one of the most elite private secondary schools in the United States. My successes continued throughout high school – I pushed myself to be the best in my school work, as well as extracurricular activities. This regimen yielded additional dividends, leading to step two on my road to “success”: admission to one of the best colleges in the United States. After successfully completing step two, I was on the road to step three – and then everything fell apart. I had decided that, based on monetary compensation, I wanted to become a corporate lawyer. Never mind that the labor market was oversaturated with lawyers – I would secure the brass ring because I would become, as I had always been, the best. However, when I received my Law School Admission Test score, I was shocked to find that I was barely mediocre, let alone the best. What could be the source of such failure?
This question led me to postpone my graduate school plans and plunged me into two years of soul searching and deep reflection, ultimately leading me to work abroad at a job that pays a pittance. How have I dealt with such failure? I can say without hesitation that it was the best learning experience of my life. By allowing myself to step away from my self-imposed environment of perfection and “success”, I have come to realize what, to me, true success really means. As a child, I wanted desperately to help not only my own family, but also my local community, to rise above the obstacles that lay in all of our paths. Somewhere along the way to my own version of success, I lost sight of the larger issues in the world that mattered to me. Seeing only lack of money, I failed to understand that to ensure success for generations, one must build the proper foundations. I had failed at being competitive for a top law school not because I lacked ability, but because I was so dispassionate about the law that I had barely studied for my exam. If I could not engage myself in this topic long enough to take a single test, what did that say about the course I had charted out for my life?
After two years working abroad and volunteering in a low-income healthcare setting, I find that my childhood dream of becoming a physician has resurfaced. What better to way to help children like my childhood self – who begin their life journeys with little more than dreams – build their own lives of success than by giving them their health, the most basic thing we possess and the foundation without which all of the successes in the world would not be possible? Altering my life direction, as well as how I define my self-worth, has been a trying, yet rewarding process. Had I not failed, I would never have discovered my passion: providing primary health care services to critically underserved areas like Central Appalachia.
As I embark on my journey to become a physician, I do so with the freedom that my failure has given me. The success I hope for is no longer monetary, but rather, self-fulfillment and the ability to help the community I care for the most. The gradual evolution that I have undergone has brought me to the point where I see success as entirely subjective. For you, it may mean being a great friend or student, getting the chance to explore new places, and doing what you’ve always wanted to do. For my mother, it meant feeding her family and keeping her children safe and warm. For this humbled young woman, success means allowing myself the room to fail and knowing that sometimes, it is those experiences that shake us to our very core that are the ones worth holding onto – whatever comes.