How I Became Successful On My Own Terms

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I’m a 27-year-old lawyer, but that’s not why I consider myself successful.

I never cared about money or prestige. In fact, I spend eight hours each day from Monday to Friday at a legal aid clinic, where I assist low-income workers who have been wrongfully terminated. In exchange, I take home a paycheque that’s a fraction of what other lawyers make.

My definition of success is to earn a living by walking my own path.

This means working, playing, breathing my aspirations, beliefs and values.

I want to wake up each morning knowing I will add value to someone else’s life. And I want to fall asleep knowing that I tried my best. That’s it; that’s all.

How do you hold firm on your values, beliefs and aspirations in a world that’s constantly trying to sell you into becoming someone that you’re not?

It’s not easy.

Here are the 8 things you need to do in order to be successful — on your own terms.

I. Define Your Non-Negotiables

Figure out what your specific aspirations, values and beliefs are. I find that reading the classics (Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, Viktor Frankl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alan Watts, etc.) help me figure out what I stand for and feels right to me. I incorporate some of the “big picture” thinking into a workable life philosophy that influences my values, habits and lifestyle.

I consider these non-negotiables.

No amount of money will cause me to compromise these pillars that make up my life.

II. Not What Pays the Most, But What Teaches You the Most

Although I’m still in the early stages of my legal career (a year and a half), it really began when I first stepped into law school.

While my peers (and even law school) have focused on obtaining the highest-paying job, I’ve always sought a job that will provide me the most opportunities to expand my skillset. The more skills I accumulated, the sooner money would flow.

I articled at an administrative tribunal. While others were stuck attending “set date” court and doing monotonous tasks that other senior lawyers relegated to them, I was attending hearings on behalf of my department. The practical skills that I acquired led to my current position, where I expanded my legal skills even further — including different areas of law.

III. Develop Your Skills Outside of Your 9-to-5

Work does not just stop after the conventional work day.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to grow your skills during your “free time.” For me, that is to improve my critical thinking skills, in order to synthesize information quicker.

I write for at least two hours every single day.

I read for at least forty-five minutes every single day.

It may not always be convenient or easy to squeeze into my schedule, on top of doing housework, spending time with loved ones, and doing all the routine chores that one must do.

But you have to learn, practice, learn, practice, learn, practice, rinse and repeat.

Get off social media.

Get off Netflix.

Tell your loved one to (lovingly) leave you alone for an hour.

Make yourself a warm cup of coffee. Pick up a book. Pick up a pen (or your laptop). Learn to critically analyze your thoughts.

IV. Find Your People

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were a powerhouse couple.

They lived apart but met up every single day to discuss their new ideas. They only made one vow to each other throughout their entire 50-year relationship: no lying. They were painfully honest about their professional work and personal affairs. They also had a social circle that involved other notable thinkers like René Maheu, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Nizan.

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Image courtesy of the Red List

When I started law school, I thought I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. With a nose piercing and visible tattoos, I assumed that everyone was going to be stuffy, privileged and only care about securing a high-powered Big Law job.

But then I found my tribe — a group of progressive individuals, who valued critical thinking, political discourse, and progressive social theories.

I bounced ideas off them.

I leaned on them when I couldn’t find a straightforward career path.

I grew because of, and alongside, them.

And I still remain close to them today.

You need to find your tribe. You need to find those who not only will support whatever your beliefs are, but assure you that you are on the right track and keep pressing on.

V. Flexible on the Process, Strict on the Goal

Entering law school, I knew that the Toronto legal market was saturated. I remained open to whatever specific job prospects that were available, but rigid on my non-negotiables. As long as the organization/company didn’t conflict, I was mostly good to go.

You must accept the process.

This involves acknowledging that you may not obtain your dream job or salary immediately, but that every position you take will bring you one step closer. Work hard wherever you are. Learn as much as you can. Opportunities will undoubtedly unfold.

VI. Avoid the Comparison Game

We have all succumbed to the comparison trap.

With just a tap, click and swipe, we can see what someone just ate, car they bought, and promotion they received. It is getting more and more difficult to avoid comparing ourselves to those who are similar in age, education or life stage, as us. But for the sake of our own sanity, we have to look away.

Easier said than done, right?

You can’t isolate yourself from society but you can set up systems that can facilitate a more intentional engagement with the world.

I deleted Facebook and Facebook Messenger from my phone.

I turned off notifications from Twitter and Instagram.

I try to avoid scrolling through social media an hour before bed.

I still use (and love) social media but now it’s more on my terms.

Trust yourself. Filter out the noise.

VII. It’s Not About Your Talent, It’s About Persistence

Success has less to do with raw talent and everything to do with practice, commitment, and persistence.

When you decide that you want something, you have to be ALL IN. For weeks, months and even years. This will undisputedly involve sacrifice along the way and you will have be okay with that.

You have to be unwavering in your non-negotiables.

You have to be willing to swim against the tide.

You have to be prepared to shake off the naysayers.

You have to be confident in your own abilities.

At the end of the road, you can’t rely on anyone else to cheer you on or do the work for you. You have to rely on your own hunger and tenacity to pull through. But eventually, when you’ve finally reached your last destination, you’ll realize that every obstacle along the way was pivotal to your ultimate success.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, you should check out where I write about personal finance, progressive economics, going against the grain, and more. — Jen

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Productivity, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of excellence at work. Writing now at

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