Be of service to others. During tough times in my life being present for others has helped me beyond measure. Going through a cancer diagnosis and its brutal treatment and after the sudden death of my husband, I found that being able to care for the needs of others allowed me to create meaning and brought a perspective that was both healing and satisfying. I was moved out of my own dark place. Being present for others is deeply satisfying to me and opens my heart even when I am sad and suffering.
Have you ever noticed how often we equate success with more? Whether that’s more products, more profits, more activities or more accomplishments, we buy into the belief that we have to do more to have more to be more. And that will sum up to success. And then along comes The Great Resignation. Where employees are signaling that the “more” that’s being offered — even more pay, more perks, and more PTO — isn’t summing up to success for them. We visited with leaders who are redefining what success means now. Their answers might surprise you.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Krauter, MFT.
Cheryl Krauter, MFT, is a psychotherapist and author with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of “Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story”, “Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care”, and “Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
The birth of my son changed my life forever and, I believe, made me a far better person than I had been prior to his arrival on the planet. I had endured decades of severe endometriosis and excruciating pain from several ovarian cysts that required several surgeries. When my husband and I decided to try to have a baby I was already forty years old and with a terrible gynecological history a successful pregnancy was considered highly unlikely. Nevertheless, three months after trying, I was already pregnant! I had connected with a collective women’s clinic and when I made the appointment to confirm the pregnancy I was shocked and thrilled to learn that the covering doctor was the man who had treated me during all those years and performed the surgeries as I struggled with the already mentioned diseases. He had retired but was asked to fill in for one of the women who was out with a back injury. I was very glad to see him again. When he slid the ultrasound wand over my belly and we looked at the screen that showed a tiny little pulsing embryo, he turned to me and said, “I’m gong to tell you now whet I never told you before. I didn’t believe that this would be possible for you.” At this point, both of us actually burst into tears. I never saw him again and continued on with my natal care at this group. My son was born eight months later. The wonderful bond I have with my son started the moment I first saw him. I was fortunate to have a bright, sensitive, fun kid and enjoyed all the silly things a parent does with an infant, a toddler, a child, and on to now to being the parent of an adult. Without a doubt, being his mother has made me a more courageous and loving person!
We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe?
As an adolescent and a young woman, I believed that success was based on physical beauty. Coming of age in a Southern California beach town where it seemed that ALL the girls were skinny with long, straight blond hair and blue eyes while I was dark haired and full figured. I always felt fat but looking back, I just wasn’t skinny and I’d never be blonde. I think that most women suffer from some version of this misguided, and sometimes cruel, definition of success that determined our worth as females based on our physical appearance. I compared myself to the prom queen, the cheerleaders and all the prettiest girls who were sought after while the rest of us stood in the shadows feeling inadequate and, often, ugly by comparison. At this point in my life, this seems remarkably shallow but at the time, it often felt demoralizing and shameful. Even though there have been strides in overcoming beauty as the measure of feminine value, women still suffer from an image of success that is based on a standard over which we have no control. This is the stuff of eating disorders, plastic surgery, and even suicide. We still worship glamorous women. Social media highlights them in expensive outfits and we are constantly bombarded by the illusion of perfection as something to achieve, knowing all the while that most of us will never even get within miles of that standard. I am happy to have weathered and moved beyond this archaic perspective of success.
Later in life I struggled with aspects of professional success that were based on level of education and professional licensure. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I earned this license when I was 29 years old and needed to make a living and start a career that supported me. I didn’t have the time nor the financial capacity to continue more education for a PhD. Early in my career, there were raised eyebrows and looks of disdain when asked if I had a PhD. I remember one social gathering where I was talking to a psychologist who was very interested in me teaching a course until she learned that I “only had a Master’s Degree”. Once she discovered this, she actually turned abruptly away from me and left the conversation, leaving me in stunned silence. All of these judgements contributed to self- doubt of my own value. It seemed that the place where you earned your degree and the level of education you attained meant that you were successful. In the early days of my career, people rarely paid attention to the quality of my work as a psychotherapist, often dismissing my input in groups and meetings. Credibility appeared to be associated with status rather than depth and I felt excluded from the club. After I had cancer, I went on to work in the field of psychosocial oncology, starting with a group founded by my breast surgeon that addressed the requirement of a care plan for cancer survivors. I would attend these meetings surrounded by physicians and hospital administrators who paid little to no attention to what I brought to the table. I would often look around the room to see people on their phones or having side conversations while I was speaking. After the publication of two books on cancer survivorship and years of dedicated work in the field of oncology, I have gained credibility. The recognition came from my care and hard work in the service of cancer patients and their communities and I was deeply honored to receive The Distinguished Public Service Award from The American Psychosocial Oncology Society in 2022.
How has your definition of success changed?
It’s not about how you look, what you do, how much money you make, or your status in society. I define success as a quality or inner feeling that is based on how you value and develop your “best self.” Success is living an authentic life with a genuine heart and an open mind. A successful life includes service to others and kindness to all sentient beings. I believe that the most important part of our lives has to do with our relationships from incidental contacts to casual friends to collegial associations leading to our most intimate connections.
I think that the work that we do needs to be based on doing the best possible job no matter what type of work you do. Several years ago I was taking a walk around Big Bear Lake in Southern California and needed to use the restroom. It was off season and there was no one else on the trail but me. The summer crowds had departed and the winter season had yet to begin. I was grateful to spot a bathroom along my way and was a bit concerned that it would be locked due to the lack of tourists in the area. Instead, I walked into one of the most pristine restrooms I have ever seen in my life. Even the restrooms at some fine dining restaurants where I’ve been were not as spotless and shining. Inside there was a woman who was cleaning the restroom with such care and efficiency, she was doing her job regardless of any recognition, not even knowing if anyone would use the facility. This taught me a lesson in the importance of pride in the work that we do. I was really touched by this woman’s stellar work at a job that many of us would look down upon and it taught me a valuable lesson in humility and the importance of excellence in our work no matter what we are doing.
Success in my work as a psychotherapist comes from the privilege of witnessing the transformation of the clients I am honored to walk alongside. When I hear that they felt seen, heard, and known, that their lives were changed because of the work we did together, I feel deeply grateful to them for trusting me to be a part of their healing journey. People do not remember our brilliant interventions, all the tools and techniques we pull out of our hats, they really don’t care about our fancy degrees or institutes of higher learning, they remember that they felt loved and cared for in the therapeutic relationship.
I think that success can be experienced when we commit to something and then follow it to fruition without the expectation of fame and fortune but in giving ourselves the satisfaction of completion. I have found gratification when I have worked hard to create something of quality. I put my heart and soul into the writing I do and am certainly not well known nor have I received much monetary compensation. However, I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what I bring to the work that I have created. Showing up to speak, to facilitate groups, in interviews for podcasts also gives me a strong sense of success in what I present. Sometimes I get to know who I have touched and why, but often I will never know who is listening and how they may have been moved or affected. Showing up and being present is, in my opinion, one of the major aspects of success.
The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post pandemic?
We are living in a remarkable time and the opportunity for transformation both personally and globally is profound. We have experienced the need for contact with one another and the consequences of isolation. Some of us had the privilege to spend time in self- reflection, had a gift of time and space to consider ourselves and our lives apart from the constant running from here to there and then back again. Others were and are living in survival mode which does not have any room for reflection as the need to get through a day takes every bit of energy. During the pandemic, we also witnessed the destructive powers of racism, sexism, anti Semitism, and bias against the LGBTQAI+ community. While it was hard to deny social injustice, some people pulled together in protest while other groups mobilized in polarized factions against these groups. The differences seemed to overpower the capacity for respect and sometimes differences were highlighted over what joined us together. I believe that the collective consciousness is far more complicated as we are faced with situations that none of us have lived through in our lifetimes. I hope that we have learned the essential need for human contact and relationship. However, as we emerge from the last three years, I see a familiar pattern that occurs after a crisis, people tend to return to what they call “normal” or “going back to normal”. I also question where or nor there was a collective self-reflection as there were individuals and groups who denied the pandemic deeming it a political ploy. Divisions occurred between people who embraced the vaccines and those who became known as “the anti-vaxxers” The feeling of “we’re all in this together” continues to elude us even after a world-wide pandemic. As we emerge into the life again, I think we need to embrace our need for one another regardless of our differences. The success of our world depends on our capacity to come together as human beings with a shared purpose of living with one another respectfully.
Mental health issues have accelerated in response to the isolation and lack of capacity to move freely in the world. I have hope that the stigma that has surrounded mental health and the need for early intervention and effective treatments may begin to lift as these concerns begin to be acknowledged as a human response to crisis and trauma. When mental health is integrated with physical health we can provide treatment for anxiety and depression just as we would treat a broken arm or the flu. I would advocate for a continued change in attitude toward acceptance of emotional and mental distress without the stigma of judgment and encourage people to seek help for their own well -being.
What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.
I discovered the sweetness of simplicity during the first months of the pandemic. My life was more complex than even I realized and when the world shut down, I found myself enjoying a more simple day to day life. I was no longer stuck in a bumper- to -bumper commute and all those important errands I was constantly running around doing faded away. My time seemed more spacious and, even though I felt lonely and isolated, there was a way in which I was more relaxed.
I began to slow down my busyness, all the constant “do do do”, and leaned more into being present in each moment. I used the time to write, to study and read, and discovered some online courses that were inspiring. I’m not sure I would have identified the number of distractions that crowded my life without all of it grinding to a sudden halt. I really didn’t even recognize how much I could let go of and how much I was chasing my own tail in the guise of productivity. Thrown back onto myself, my creativity bloomed and deepened.
I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we look after one another. As an older woman who was alone for the first part of the pandemic, my younger neighbors checked in on me. They would drop food by, take out my garbage cans, pick up my newspaper and put in on the porch. We would stand the requisite 6 feet apart and have conversations. It was a touching experience of people caring about one another and sharing our lives during a frightening and vulnerable time.
For a brief moment in time, the world grew silent and I wrapped myself in the beauty of that silence like a soft shawl. I would step out into my back yard at night, breathing in the fresh air that I longed for after being confined to my home. It was soundless, no cars, no noise from the commuter train, in those early days, no one was out at all. In the dark stillness, I felt a sense of peace in the midst of all the uncertainty of those beginning days of the pandemic.
We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share “5 Ways To Redefine Success Now?”
- Turn away from seeking external validation and stop looking to others for your sense of worth. This is a work in progress for me as I can still get rattled when my work is judged negatively or, even worse, completely ignored. This was particularly true when I published a deeply emotional memoir of my husband’s sudden death which involved exposing a raw story of my grief and rocky journey of healing. After the manuscript went to the printer, I nearly had a panic attack questioning what I had done! But in the end, this book gave me the freedom to show up authentically and let go of worrying about what other people would think.
- Focus on being rather than doing. Give more credence to who you are as a human being rather than madly running around trying to check off a list of achievements to prove your value. To put it simply, I feel better when I am present within myself and living from that inner place. Being with loved ones, enjoying the scent of spring blossoms, extending a hand to someone who needs support, having a good laugh, these bring me pleasure. What’s more successful than that!
- Reflect on what really matters to you. Don’t rely on a prescribed definition of success that may not fit for you. Take the time to figure out what success means to you and then make a commitment to yourself and your own intentions. Finding purpose in life is unique to each one of us. I am always touched by people who quietly make a difference without the need for attention. Knowing what matters and acting on it is the best acknowledgement of yourself.
- Decide what’s enough. This is such a key element to a personal sense of success. When I look around me, I see a small, loving, and comfortable home that gives me shelter. I don’t live in a huge mansion surrounded by the latest gadgets or expensive décor. I see photos of family and loved ones, mementos given to me that have special meaning, a purring cat in my lap. When I read about the latest and greatest new thing, I think I might have to have it. Then I pause for a moment and think, really? Do I need that? Most of the time, the answer is no. I do admit, however, to an enjoyment of dressing fashionably, relishing fine food, delicious wine, and fun travel adventures!
- Be of service to others. During tough times in my life being present for others has helped me beyond measure. Going through a cancer diagnosis and its brutal treatment and after the sudden death of my husband, I found that being able to care for the needs of others allowed me to create meaning and brought a perspective that was both healing and satisfying. I was moved out of my own dark place. Being present for others is deeply satisfying to me and opens my heart even when I am sad and suffering.
How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?
People would suffer less depression related to some perceived sense of what they needed to achieve in order to be successful. This would also decrease the anxiety associated with a constant striving for status. By creating deeper connections with what is meaningful in our lives there is a chance for higher self-esteem. With an increase in simple pleasures and joy in everyday life, we can turn away from the endless pursuit of wealth and fame or whatever current shiny object distracts us from discovering an inner sense of peace and contentment.
What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?
We place too much attention on results rather than the lessons we gain from our lived experience and all that we learn from our so-called failures. One definition of failure is the inability to meet expectations. Whose expectations? What expectations? I would suggest that success and failure are not one size fits all and that what may look like a failure to one person may, indeed, be a tremendous success for another. In the competitive, capitalistic American culture we praise bigger, better, and faster as successful and, ironically, these qualities are enormous obstacles to success. We need to let go of our attachment to material wealth and status as a measure of personal success. We can overcome these obstacles to redefining success by changing a system that praises achievement over personal development and growth, leaning to be a citizen of the world, being a part of our community because it is the right thing to do, and valuing kindness and respect for each other.
Develop self- acceptance
Continue to reflect on what matters to you
Commit to your own best self and keep that commitment
Where do you go to look for inspiration and information about how to redefine success?
My relationships are the most cherished part of my life. Being present with others in work, in play, in love, in learning, inspires me. I truly believe that the quality of our relationships is the greatest opportunity for personal growth and meaning and for me the most important definition of success is how well I loved.
I have practiced meditation since 1984 and the insight and inspiration from that daily commitment is invaluable. I do not identify success with meditation as I believe that achievement is not the point of self-awareness.
The natural world and all the beauty and solace it gives is inspiring. I think the trees, the ocean, the streams, and the clouds are here without demands or thoughts of success and failure and that offers a restorative and rejuvenating power.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she or they might just see this if we tag them.
Michelle Obama because she is a strong, intelligent, caring woman who is authentic. I admire her genuineness and her values and believe she would be an amazing colleague and an awesome friend. I would be so honored and excited beyond belief to meet her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.