Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
“Is the area you live in an indicator of your success? More specifically: Does someone choose to sit on a porch on a mildly warm spring day in *insert rural place* doing nothing because they have peace with themselves and feel fine sitting with their thoughts, or does one sit on that porch in that place because they don’t have the capability or motivation to be more traditionally successful, stay busy, go places, and do things?”
Your question is one I’ve asked myself a lot. I live in New York now, but I grew up in a place where there were porches aplenty. A few months after I turned 19, I left my hometown and moved to Sydney, chasing my own version of success. At that time, success to me was getting the entry-level magazine job all my university lecturers had warned me against dreaming about. And things were great: I had the job I wanted and was making it the Big City. But in the eyes of other people, with their own ideas regarding what it means to thrive, I might not have looked nearly as successful as I felt. I was completely friendless, I was set to graduate well behind the rest of my class, and I was earning a wage so low it would literally be illegal now. Still, I felt successful, and even if my definition of success has since evolved, at the time, I felt fulfilled.
The closer I get to 30, the more curious I am about the ways people in my life mark their own successes. Take my sister, for example, who remained in our hometown while I moved to Sydney, then New York, racing after various career milestones. She has two children, has built a house, and is currently building a second, which will likely have an excellent porch for sitting. It would be impossible to say which of us is more successful, because it’s simply not objective. We’ve both put tons of work into making our respective dreams come to fruition. Despite our polar-opposite journeys, we’re both motivated, busy, and capable—because whether you choose to live in one of the biggest cities in the world or regional Australia, there is always the potential for reward. That’s important to remember.
In the past, I’ve wished my sister and I shared similar paths so we could have grown in the same direction and swapped advice along the way, but now I find solace in our differences. It reassures me that we are both living our lives as intended. So much of growing up and finding independence is endeavoring to define our own versions of success outside the constraints of what we were coded to believe as kids. To look around and acknowledge that everyone can find success, regardless of the size of their goals or where they live. Thinking this way can be incredibly reassuring, because it means your motivations are yours and yours alone.
It seems like you’re grappling with two things right now: What it means to be successful and where you want to live. And I think it will be difficult for you to parse either until you reconfigure your definition of success into something more personal. Meditating on a porch and career-climbing in a city are two commercial extremes of what it could mean to succeed. Until you establish your own definition, I think these will continue to feel inadequate to you.
For some people, success is establishing a career in a certain line of work. For others, it manifests in more material ways—in the shapes of houses, cars, or overseas vacations. And for others, success means something a little more abstract, like building a community, excelling at a hobby, or managing their physical and mental health. One of the most important questions you can ask yourself right now is: What does success mean to me?
So, what is it that you want? More specifically, what do you want right now? When you imagine yourself sitting on that porch, do you see yourself now or are you older? Are you alone or with a family? Are you calm or are you bored? Is the reality of this life crisp in your mind or more like a scene out of a movie, tinged in sepia? If you’re finding it hard to answer these questions, I suggest you start writing. List everything you want, then circle the things you want the soonest. Now look at these words and link them together, considering the resources you will need to achieve some measure of them. Feel free to get literal: Are your goals related to an industry that operates out of a certain city? And if so, does that city conflict with any of your other goals? Have you felt any of these things before, and if so, how? Your list may not go according to plan, but asking yourself these questions might help you tap into your own desires, instead of looking to everyone else’s.
I wanted to answer your letter because your question is something I’ve thought about a lot. What would it mean for me to leave New York? Will I ever be able to move on from this city without feeling like that move comes with an acceptance that my career has hit its peak? And beyond that, what would it mean if I woke up one day and craved the pace of my hometown, and the paddocks of kangaroos and eucalyptus trees that surround it? Would I judge myself for returning to the place I was once so desperate to leave? And if so, would I relay the same judgements to a friend making the same return home? Where we live is a large part of our identities, unpacking our thoughts about where we call home will always be a complex and deeply personal process.
I also wanted to write to you because I’m close to a lot of people who live in rural areas, and they’re just as complex, motivated, and impressive as anybody I’ve met in New York. To conflate success with the region you live in is to suggest that people living in small towns don’t have ambition, but you can be busy, social, and valuable no matter where you live. You can be successful and valid and fulfilled without ever leaving the country, state, or town you were born in. The most critical factor is not place, but person. And for some people, their most potent version of fulfillment can’t happen without a drastic life change. If and when you have those feelings, it’s a matter of assessing how hard you want to work to make it happen, and sometimes, making peace with the fact that your other goals—say, days of porch-sitting in the sunshine—might just have to wait a little while.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.