When I was eight years old, I decided that I was going to be a singer when I grew up — and that was that. From that day forward, I only equated success with living out that very specific dream. And every choice I made and action I took was in the pursuit of it: learning to play the guitar, auditioning for vocal groups, even calling in to vote for American Idol. My dream became a mechanism by which to define, guide and comfort myself. But somewhere along the way, my relationship with music changed, and in my hyper-focus on the future, I almost missed how unhappy I had grown in the present.
By the time I finally redirected my energy, years after I probably should have, I came to realize that success doesn’t always mean chasing a dream — sometimes it can mean having the strength to walk away from the path you laid out for yourself. It can mean accepting that your dreams, goals, and vocabularies are constantly evolving and changing, as transitional as the seasons. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of success — but that doesn’t make finding your own definition any easier.
Michele, Ana and Leila, three women in their sixties, define success with notable elasticity. I spoke with them in the hopes of cracking the code on a concept that’s as beloved as it is loathed. In our conversations, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is success — this elusive term — truly just a myth?
Michele, 65, is the head of a high school.
I was born in the 1950s, and we just didn’t look like other families around us. Growing up with a mother who is black and a father who is white, you get to see and navigate the world in a way that most other people don’t. I was always trying to understand that or have my parents explain it to me. My parents moved to France in 1960, because they didn’t want to raise their kids in a country where such racism could exist.
When I moved back to the United States at 15, I landed at a big American high school. The girls were cheerleaders, the boys on the football team; it just felt like a cliché. Then I discovered student government. I fell in love with it, but was told that I could only act as secretary because I was a girl. So, I applied to a women’s college, where I finally felt understood. I became president of the student body there. I loved organizing things, meeting people – It felt right to me. I was very good at school. I loved teaching and being taught. I went on to study at grad school — I was hiding, to some degree. I never wanted to leave school.
After graduating, I took little jobs teaching French. I was successful at that: Always figuring out how to pay my rent and put gas in my car. The things that matter in your early 20s! Survival, getting by. I never took from my parents. I was a self-sufficient woman, and that in itself was a form of success. I eventually moved back to New York City and got married — to please my mother, more than anything else.
My godparents once said to me, “When you were a kid, we always we worried about you,” because I didn’t always do my schoolwork well — math was just horrible for me! They were worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out life. But you know what? I always knew I would. I believed in my own ability to take care of myself.
If you open yourself up to people, you’ll learn from them. Somebody will say, “Try this!” or another will say, “Well, maybe this will happen!” I never turned down anything. I always said yes.
After I got married, I wasn’t teaching and needed a job. It was New York in the early ‘80s, and women were starting to go into business. I knew nothing about business! I went down to a temp agency and told them that I could speak French. I got a job with a french electrician company. The guy I was temping for was horribly rude! He wouldn’t tell me what to do. So, when I came back the second day, and he was still terribly rude, I just left after lunch and didn’t come back. That felt successful to me, because I had stood up for myself.
I finally found my way back to teaching. I had so missed being in the classroom. I loved finding new ways of approaching things. I started out life as a French teacher, and I still teach French. But I realized after five or six years that I could only teach the verb chanter (to sing) so many times.
The most rewarding part of teaching is sitting in a classroom and talking about pretty much anything. I’m currently teaching a class and we’re studying a film called Au Revoir Les Enfants. It’s a childhood story that takes place during WWII. And there are so many parallels to today, the human emotions are still the same. Success is a kid coming back a grown woman and saying, “What I liked about your class is that I felt you always cared. You always cared about me.”
After 10 years of being a French teacher, I moved to a very progressive school, and began to work in the administration. Kids need a voice — it doesn’t always have to be the adults speaking. I wanted to figure out a way to make that happen.
I get to be with fantastic young women. We just try to figure out life. We’re living in some messed up times right now, so trying to get them to understand that they have a voice without overtly telling them what to think, that’s the goal. Man, I’m counting on them to do something to get us out of our current situation. Listening to them and seeing what they’re doing makes me so proud.
Sometimes, I worry that my students define success by looking at their grades or where they end up going to college. I always tell parents that their jobs are successful if these three things happen: your child finds whatever passes for happiness, someone who loves them, and does a little bit of good for the world. If I can get that for these students, then I’ve been successful. And if they can do that for themselves, they’ve been successful. The rest is gravy.
Ana, 68, is a caregiver to the elderly.
I was born in Romania in 1951. My family had five children — two boys, and three girls. I had very nice parents. In 1969, I got married, and three years later, I had my first child, a boy. But I was stuck in a very bad marriage. My husband didn’t like children, and we had three. He cheated on me constantly; he had a lot of girlfriends. And oh, he liked to drink — a little too much. And he was abusive. So, at 28 years old, I filed for my first divorce.
I came to America for the first time in 1993, and stayed for 11 months, then returned to Romania. Four years later, I immigrated for good under the guise of visiting my cousin. I did not want to go back to Romania — after Communism fell and the party changed, life felt uncertain.
After two years in America, I remarried. When I first got to New York, I worked at a factory. It was a very strong, stable job, but it wasn’t sustainable. Next, I got work at the Gorham hotel for another two years. After 9/11, the hotel was sold and I lost my job.
So I decided to go to school for homecare. It paid off — I ended up working for 13 years as a home attendant, for two or three agencies. In 2005, I applied for citizenship and green cards for my firstborn son and my younger daughters. After seven months, my son came to America. I was so happy! We lived together for five years.
My son was 41 and very depressed. When he immigrated to the United States, he had one daughter. His wife refused to move with him, and would not let him take his daughter. He didn’t have any friends here. He didn’t have anything! Little by little, he began drinking. The more depressed he became, the more he drank, and vice versa. In a short amount of time, he developed liver problems. Before he died, he stayed in the hospital for two weeks. He needed a liver transplant, but because he was an alcoholic, he wasn’t considered a candidate in the state of New York.
My son stopped speaking. He was in a lot of pain until he passed away. It’s been seven years, and every day, I cry for him. I had a very nice son — a good boy. This is the life.
In 2013, eight years after I applied, my daughter was granted a green card and moved to New York. Ana Maria is a very good child. She immediately found work, and is now a citizen. After 12 years, my other daughter was finally able to move here with her family. Now, my two daughters live with me, as well as my three grandchildren! I have a good family. I am finally happy. Oh, and I’m divorced.
I didn’t file for divorce — my husband did. I have no clue what happened. After 13 years, I came home one day and he told me. I asked why, because I didn’t think we had any problems! Looking back, I think I had changed after my son passed away. My son lived in a nice apartment, with nice furniture. My husband wanted me throw everything out. I said no: This is the apartment of my son, and I want to be with him. The truth is, I was incredibly depressed. So, my husband decided to go for a divorce. Honestly, when he told me, I thought it was a joke — funny! That day, he said, “Come sign the papers with a lawyer.” When I met with the lawyers, they asked if I wanted anything from him, and I said no. I took nothing. For what? I didn’t need him. It’s been five years. But I’m happy, because I have two very good daughters. I live single and this is my life.
I never went to school for English. I came here and nobody helped me. I didn’t have the time for anything. I worked 24 hours for homecare — cooking, cleaning the house. I didn’t have time for school or my husband. But I watched TV and learned what little English I know. I speak Spanish pretty well. I thank God.
Do I have success? Yes. I came to America with one piece of luggage, two pairs of pants. Now, I have a nice apartment — for rent, but still! I have a car. I’m happy and grateful for everything. I have a good life. I have two amazing kids. I have very nice grandchildren. No, I’m okay. You know? I am very strong.
When I was younger, I thought success would look different. But now success means having my grandchild in school, speaking great English. This country has good opportunities — he can go to school, to college. It’s so different from home! He’ll get a great job. For my children, the future is bright. They are my biggest success. I’ve sacrificed a lot, but I am happy. I have a good life. For me, it’s enough.
Leila, 65, is an international gallery owner and art dealer.
I don’t consider myself a success. I used to envision that I would be alive for much longer, that I’d have time to one day be successful. Maybe I have 20 years left — just because my mom died at 84. I have limited time. Is that enough time to become successful?
I’m a very curious person. I love to learn, but I have not yet learned enough. I don’t know, maybe because I grew up in Iran, a small country — I used to look up to big countries, like the United States, as being world leaders. My mother always encouraged me to be independent, on the same level as everyone. I felt like I had to achieve so much. My mom pushed me, as a woman. I needed to excel, and I needed to be at the same level as men — if not better. When she was growing up, my grandmother had to secretly take her to classes. She wanted me to do everything that she wasn’t able to. So she pushed me in hundreds of different directions. I was never good enough. She always felt like there was so much more for me to learn.
I had a very happy childhood. I studied hard and applied to all these American universities. I ultimately was accepted to Brown. I had planned on studying economics. My whole plan was to go back to my country and help. That was sort of an understood thing.
When I arrived at Brown, they were teaching modern math. I didn’t understand one bit. Kids were working on computers, and I had never seen a computer before in my life! It was all so foreign. Not understanding what was going on in class was very hard on me. I was used to being the best, good at being the best. But I realized for the first time that I was not, in fact, the best — I was mediocre, even. It was a whole other world, and there were so many kids that were much smarter than I could ever be. It was a big wake-up call.
I decided to figure out who I was. I took a class on Impressionism and fell in love with art history. I had the most amazing professor, Kermit Champa, who changed my life. I took studio art classes, as well as courses at RISD. I discovered myself. Soon after I was accepted into the Sotheby’s Masters program in London — one of their first ever students. I also attended George Washington University, which had a program with the Smithsonian Institute. I became an employee at the Hirschhorn. Mr. Hirschhorn was alive — he would come once a month for meetings, and I was in charge of bringing his lunch.
Even then, I intended to return to Iran. I wanted to work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, which hadn’t even been built yet. I always wanted to return to my country, to better it. But I didn’t get my degree until in 1979 — the year of the revolution. I couldn’t go back. I was separated from my parents for two years.
My good friend had become an assistant coordinator at the Guggenheim, and helped me get a job there. The Guggenheim became my family — I didn’t have papers, I didn’t have a passport. They took me under their wing.
I opened my first gallery in 1982. It was essentially a room in my apartment. I lived in the back, and I had my business in the front. Nobody knew! But it was a professional gallery. I used to have 800 people at my openings — including Warhol! It was the time of Studio 54, and I knew so many artists! The club scene and the art world were very much intertwined. I knew Basquiat, Keith Haring — historical figures now.
Word eventually got out that there was this Persian girl who had opened an underground gallery in New York, and all of these Persian artists started getting in touch with me! I’ve always been devoted to Middle Eastern artists, but there isn’t a huge market for them here. Maybe one or two make it big, but the rest? I’ve had so many shows that could not sell, where I lost so much money. But I had a lot of passion and believed in their work. I’ve made artists into global sensations, and I’ve placed them in major museums. But I still feel like there’s so much more that I should do.
I’ve had my gallery for 38 years. Sustaining yourself in the art world is very difficult. Everything I have made has been put back into my gallery. If you go through a recession, or a dip in the market, you go through tough years. It’s a lot of hard work to launch an artist, get art placed in museum, raise an artist’s price level.
Success in this business is achieved through financial gain. For now, I haven’t been successful. I have profited in the way that my artists have become successful, but has it given me a lifestyle? No. I have such a long way to go. How am I going to do what I want with so little time left?
Maybe I’m hard on myself — I was brought up by my mom to believe that nothing was good enough. But you know what? If you talk to any successful person, they don’t think they’re successful either. I’ll never retire. But I’m very tired, to be honest with you. This was a horrible year for me. There were three episodes that really changed my life forever. But everybody goes through difficult times. It builds strength and character.
First, my accounts were hacked badly. We lost a considerable amount of money. You work so hard for years to make money, and then you lose it like that. Suddenly, it all disappears. Later that month, I was diagnosed with Cancer and had surgery. I was very sick. During the last week of treatments, my mom was killed. My mother was the world to me.
But I am never a victim. I never ask, Why me? I accept my destiny and make the best of every situation. I have faith. Even when I’m really sad, I don’t show my sadness to my children or husband, because life has to go on. It’s not fair to them.
My kids think I talk myself down, but I worry that the younger generations are a little full of themselves. Life is hard, you have to be prepared. I’m an extremely strong person. I’m a fighter. And I’ve fought. My only advice is to have a great work ethic and to be humble. I am a very humble person. I think it’s beautiful to be humble, and yet… achieve a lot.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Iman Hariri-Kia is a New York based writer, musician, and Sex & Dating Editor at Elite Daily. You can often find her performing songs about those who wronged her in Middle School.
Photos by Chloé Horseman.