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Redefining Success

Redefining Success

Sarah Kay uses the power of spoken word to inspire creativity and self-empowerment in others. A featured speaker at the 2011 TED Conference on “The Rediscovery of Wonder”–which has been seen by over two million people on YouTube, Kay writes in The Huffington Post about why she is committed to her unique career path:

When I was nearing the end of my college experience, a lot of my friends had a clear idea of their definition of success. It was getting through medical school and one day becoming a doctor. It was winning a Tony for a Broadway musical. It was getting hired as a journalist for the New York Times. I did not have any clue as to what my definition of success was. I could make something up, based on what I had heard or read. I could say, “I’ll know I’m a success when I publish a book,” or “when I become Poet Laureate,” or “when I perform at the White House,” but that would have just been because they sounded impressive and gave me an answer for “what are you aiming for next?”

Truthfully, I was not sure what I was looking for. I think a lot of young people are told what success is or make it up based on what they have seen and then try to get to that landmark without knowing if it is the direction they actually want to head down. What has proven more helpful to me has not been defining success now and then searching for a landmark. It has been allowing success to redefine itself again and again by being mindful and listening to myself.

I check in over and over with myself, saying, “How do I feel about this?” And sometimes, the answer is, “Wow, I don’t like doing this. This makes me feel terrible.” However, when I was getting ready to graduate from college, I was spending a lot of time performing spoken word poetry and teaching an after-school workshop once a week at a nearby public high school. After every class I taught, I would come out beaming. I listened to that. I thought, “This makes me really happy. I love doing this. Why do I love doing this? What is it about this that is bringing me joy and feels meaningful? What do I need to do to find more opportunities to do this?” I ask myself those questions as often as possible. There is an author by the name of Simon Sinek who says that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And I believe this to be true. For me, the what, the where, even the how, has changed. But the why has not. The reason why I get on a stage or why I step foot in a classroom has not changed. Figuring out that “why” is what I am listening for when I reflect and listen to myself.

At this point in my life — age 24 — I have chosen a fairly strange path that not many are walking. I am a professional spoken word poet who tours the world performing and teaching. I run an organization called Project VOICE dedicated to using this art form as an education and empowerment tool in schools and communities of all kinds. There isn’t really a specific person I can look at and go, “Oh, that’s what success looks like in my field. That’s what I need to get to.” Because that person doesn’t exist. Instead, it is up to me to live mindfully and listen to myself. It allows me to recognize when the work I am doing feels like it is aligning with why I want do it.

Of course, if someone knows they want to be a doctor, or a journalist or a social worker or anything specific at all, I salute them for having that clarity of vision. I am not saying that people shouldn’t have goals. But rather, that by listening to myself, I can tell when I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, even when what I am doing doesn’t seem to match anybody else’s definition of success. For now, success is when I am working on things that bring me joy and meaning. I might find that joy and meaning in the most unlikely of places, but invariably I find it when I am listening carefully to myself.

Several years ago, my organization, Project VOICE, was asked to perform in a middle school in Southern California. We were nervous, since nobody at the school had ever seen spoken word poetry before. We performed our set, and afterwards, teachers and students came to tell us how much they had enjoyed the show. A year went by, and we were invited back to the school to perform again. We were thrilled. Whenever Project VOICE performs at a school, we always take a moment from the set to see if anyone in the audience wants to come on stage and perform their own poem. You never know when there might be a poet in the audience who has been waiting for an opportunity to share their work.

The first time we were at the school, nobody volunteered. Which was understandable. They had never seen or heard of this art form before. But a year later, when we were performing on stage, we asked if there was anyone who wanted to come and share. As soon as I finished asking the question, a little boy from the audience came leaping towards the stage. He didn’t even raise his hand or wait for me to call on him. When he got onstage he was breathless, and I asked him what his name was. He said, “I wrote this poem the day after you left last year and I have been waiting all year for a chance to share it with you.” It is moments like this that remind me why I do what I do. The potential to have that kind of impact is overwhelming. It is an honor. It is my privilege and my responsibility. It feels like a high-five from the universe. It feels like success.

By Sarah Kay/The Huffington Post/June 2013