In the Face of Adversity

How do you define success?
By DeVanté Starks with Apsu Hamilton
Large group of people behind a home plate on a baseball field
Son of a Saint is a New Orleans–headquartered youth-development and mentoring nonprofit. Here, some of the organization’s mentees, mentors, and staff members participate in a group photo during a kickball tournament in 2020.

What do you want to be when you grow up? As young kids, we heard those words asked by a parent, teacher, or friend. Whether you realized it or not, your answer to that question may have been defined by your understanding of success at that time. Now that you’re older, it is important to define what success means to you. 

You could survey 100 people, and each person might give a different definition of success based on their values or goals. The definition is likely to vary, person to person, based on an individual’s age, the pathways the person took in life, the values of the people in their network, and the individual’s overall community. 

Success does not come easily. A common denominator in many people’s success stories is facing or overcoming adversity. Adversity is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.”

People often have a hard time figuring out what they want to do with their lives and/or achieving the goals they’ve set. No one has a road map to success or to a fulfilling career, and it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. However, it’s important to ask for guidance from a family member, friend, or mentor. Help is always available to those who ask. 

Son of a Saint

I’m a success coach at Son of a Saint, a New Orleans–headquartered youth-development and mentoring nonprofit. My role revolves around preparing young men for life after high school, whether that means attending college or heading straight into the workforce. Each of my coaching sessions begins with me asking the same two exploratory questions: “What do you want out of life?” and “What would constitute a successful life for you?” 

Apsu Hamilton (left) is a recent Son of a Saint program graduate. DeVanté Starks (right) is a success coach at the organization.

During a conversation with Apsu Hamilton, a recent graduate of our program, he said that his definition of success was derived from all the obstacles and hurdles he’s needed to overcome. His definition included “having a career that gives me freedom, wealth, and flexibility. Success, to me, is being able to help and inspire others.” 

When discussing the most successful person he knows, Hamilton immediately identified his grandfather. “He embodies all the things I see as successful,” Hamilton said. His grandfather graduated from college during an era of racial discrimination and segregation. He became a world traveler and worked hard to achieve the financial freedom to retire early. 

Working Through Adversity

During the course of our conversation, Hamilton and I discussed five tips for pursuing a meaningful career, derived from his experiences and achievements in the face of adversity.

  1. Start where you are, with what you have. People sometimes feel like they aren’t enough, or like they don’t have enough. You can always work toward your goal or goals, no matter where you are or what you feel you lack.

  2. Set goals. Setting goals gives you direction. If you don’t have anything you’re working toward, you’re not working. Setting goals is as beneficial for your career as it is for the other parts of your life. When setting goals, be sure they are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

  3. Celebrate the small stuff. We can get stuck in the cycle of comparing our accomplishments to everyone else’s. Don’t fall into that cycle. Be proud of yourself and your progress toward your goal or goals.

  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to work with a mentor. No one knows everything, and it’s okay to admit you need help. If you never ask questions, you’ll never get the answers you need. Find someone whom you can look to for guidance and encouragement. Finding a sincere mentee-mentor relationship is one of the best things you can do for your life and career.

  5. Gain exposure and find your passion. As Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series likes to say, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” Exploration of different things is the only way you’ll encounter ones you can be passionate about. This tip is worth repeating: Don’t limit yourself!

There’s no one path to success. The most important thing to remember is to have direction. As psychologist David P. Campbell tells it, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” Make sure you arrive where you want to be.