When most people talk about career success, they are speaking about how successful they are in their paying job. Our society is geared up to measuring a person’s worth as being directly related to the work they are paid to do. We indoctrinate our children in this belief and it is reinforced throughout our lives.

A recent event in my life has forced me to reevaluate this and to think about human worth in a different way. My unmarried, elderly uncle passed away last month. He had lived alone for the last 28 years and had worked as a waiter in a restaurant his entire working life. By most of the measures of our current society, here was a man who did not have a “successful” career.

And yet, outside of work he was an artist. He created the most wonderful paintings, sketches and drawings. He made intricate models. He collected Jazz music and old films and was a walking encyclopedia about both.

While helping to clear his house I came upon a box filled with photos. Included among them were people the family did not know. The letters that accompanied the photos explained their presence. During the time that my uncle worked at the restaurant, many of his co-workers were young women from overseas working away from home for the first time. The letters all contained heartfelt thanks to him for helping them settle in, find their feet and get over their homesickness. The letters were sweet, often written in less-than-perfect english and showed a side to my uncle I did not know.

He may not have made a lot of money as a waiter, the job certainly did not make use of his many talents, and yet here was a different level of success. He was able to make a positive impact on the lives of his co-workers in a way they really appreciated and needed. If there were more people like my uncle – willing to help the people around them and not ask much in return, the world would be a better place.

In all the ways that really matter, my uncle had a successful life. He fully realized his creative talents in his spare time, pursued knowledge in areas that interested him, helped those around him while not expecting anything in return. No one single area of his life fully made use of all his talents, and he was never paid to do the things that really made a difference – so maybe success in our “paid jobs” is the least important of the measures we should use to quantify our success.

When we look to forge our career path we need to find ways to realize our ideals outside of our paid employment. Expecting our job to provide all our life’s satisfaction is unrealistic and impossible for all but a lucky few. If we are lucky we can find a way to have an impact in our paid jobs, but if not, we can achieve self-actualization through our hobbies, families, friends and communities.