Following a recent class at the university where I teach, a young coed lingered behind as the other students hurried away. Once the room had cleared of all but the two of us, she approached me timidly. “You probably have somewhere else you have to go now,” she said with the tone of a question. “Not really,” I answered. “What do you need?”

I didn’t anticipate the reply she offered. With a term paper soon due, my guess was she wanted to talk about that particular assignment. Could she write about an alternative topic? Did it really have to include footnotes? Why was she required to consult a variety of sources from the library when it would be far easier just to look it all up on Wikipedia? Couldn’t she do a service project instead? I was braced and ready to respond to those questions. I was not braced and ready for the reply I received.

“What do you need?,” I asked, and she answered, “I need to be somewhere else.” Clearly I looked puzzled (which I was) because she didn’t wait for me to speak again before she explained. “I don’t want to be here,” she continued. “By that, I don’t mean here in this class. I mean here on this campus. In fact, I mean on any campus. I don’t want to be in college.”

“We all go through that as students,” I offered patronizingly. “Stresses build up, and we wish we could take a break from it.” “I’m not going through anything,” she retorted. “I never wanted to go to college. It’s great for people who desire it, but I desire something else.” So much for patronizing.

“So,” I inquired, “what do you desire?” For the first time her eyes brightened. “I want to cook,” she told me. “That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I want to prepare food, which means I need to be in a culinary school or working in a restaurant learning from a pro. I don’t need to be here taking liberal arts courses and writing term paper and rushing for a sorority. I need to be in a kitchen plating some meal I prepared from scratch.”

“Then, why are you here?,” I asked, and she told me. “Because my parents love me and since I was born set aside money for me to go to college. It’s what they want for me. It’s what my grandparents want. It’s what all my hometown friends expected of me and of themselves. It’s what my high school teachers expected of me. And whenever I tried to explain to any of them that I want to cook, they dismissed that like it’s just some hobby I will enjoy on weekends. You know, Dr. Brown,” she said, “I am chasing everyone’s dream except my own.”

Let’s be clear. Everyone she referenced cared about her and wanted what’s best for her. The problem is simply that they assumed they knew (or could decide) what is ultimately in her best interests. The simple truth is that no one can define “success” for you because no one else lives in your skin.

So, whose dream are you chasing? Who has told you what you have to do or be in order to find life that is full and worthy? Who have you allowed to make those crucial and life-shaping decisions for you? Whereas it is always wise to listen attentively to well-intended advice, it is never wise to surrender your deepest desires to the contrary desires of somebody else. If you are chasing anyone’s dream other than your own, there won’t be much joy at the end of the chase.

You are the only you there is, and that is a beautiful thing. Honoring that, at some point we have to ask ourselves three questions that can help you find a place of satisfaction and joy:
 What do I do well (i.e., what are my skills)?
 What do I enjoy doing (i.e., what are my passions)?
 What does the world need that I can do?

Find a single answer that ties those three questions together, and you have defined what “success” looks like in your life. No one else can determine that for you, however much they love you or however much they desire a specific life outcome for you. You are the only person who can finally decide what it means to be you.

I often think that few things could be sadder than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of a retirement community, looking back over the long decades of one’s life, and thinking, “If I had it to do over, I would have done it differently.” “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell wisely advised. “Pull your own strings,” wrote Wayne Dyer. They knew that meaning, joy, and fulfillment wait at the end of those roads. I have no idea what road that young coed will ultimately follow, but something within me hopes it leads to a kitchen.