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Work It: Success

Defining success is about as hard as achieving it. In this episode of the "Work It" podcast, we hear from a barber and a stay-at-home mom with radically different views of success.

On the second episode of the Work It podcast, we’re introducing you to a stay-at-home mom and a barber with very defined, but very different, views of success.

Everyone has a "Work It" story (whether it involves success or not). Who should we interview next? Submit your guest idea in the box below or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast.

Receive the Work It podcast as soon as it's available: subscribe for free (and leave a rating/review) on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or on your favorite podcast app.


Episode 2: Success

Stephanie Hale: Years ago, I ran across a quote that really stuck with me from Pearl Buck, a famous American author. She said, “To find joy at work is to discover the fountain of youth.” If that’s true, one of our guests today, Buster the barber, is going to live forever.

Buster Gilliard: When I put that mirror in front of them, it really gives me a rush because I'm like, “OK, damn! I know I just helped this little guy. He’s happy.” It just makes me happy when I do those types of things.

Jill Bjers: Buster obviously has a passion for his work and for giving back to his community. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t even have a job. Imagine a career that is so satisfying without having to work a job. Buster seems like he really has this career thing figured out.

Stephanie: Yeah, he does! He’s so happy, just listening to him makes me happy. We wanted to find out more about how people define and achieve career success. That’s coming up on the Work It podcast.

Theme Music

Jill: Hi. I'm Jill Bjers.

Stephanie: And I'm Stephanie Hale. And this is the Work It podcast, where we have conversations with people about their relationships with their jobs and how it shapes their view of the world.

Jill: Each episode, we follow our curiosities underneath the job and into the complex identities of the people we encounter in our everyday lives. Because on the Work It podcast, our core belief is that it's the people — not the jobs — that are truly interesting. Now it's time to get to "work."

Act 1: Frances

Stephanie: OK, Jill, question for you: What does career success mean to you?

Jill: Are you ever going to ask me an easy question in these?

Stephanie: Probably not.

Jill: Great. Well, that’s a tough question for me. I don’t really think of success in terms of milestones. It’s more about doing good work, independence and stability. But that’s just me. So Stephanie, what’s your definition?

Stephanie: I’ve actually thought about this a lot. For me, career success is doing good, creative work with people I admire.

Jill: OK, so there’s some overlap. Success means something different to everyone. So defining it is about as hard as achieving it.

Stephanie: Luckily, we have our guests to help us through this. Today we will hear stories from two people: Buster the barber and Frances the stay-at-home mom. They have radically different views of what makes them successful in their careers.

Jill: But despite their different perspectives, both would agree — you don’t have to have a job to have career success. When Frances Hill heard we wanted to interview her for a podcast about work, she was surprised.

Frances Hill

Frances Hill: I love that you refer to it as a career. Of course, it's a career. But I don't know that I had ever really verbalized that to myself or called it that. So I love that.

Jill: I think many of us can relate to that blurry line between who we are and what we do.

Stephanie: That line is sure blurry for me. I love my job as a leadership development consultant and people are never surprised when they find out what I do for a living. But this is my second career; my first job was the same as Frances’. For the first seven years after college, I also worked as a stay-at-home mom, and I imagined it’d be my only career. I really loved that job, too. I’ve now been a working mom twice as long as I was a stay-at-home mom. And you know what? Most of the things I did as a stay-at-home mom are still my responsibility as a working mom.

Jill: Exactly! When my son was little, I would have loved to have stay at home with him, but it just wasn’t possible. But something I have always been curious about: once the kids are in school, how is the job of stay-at-home mom different than the role of parent? Does Frances see a difference between this career choice and simply being a mom?

Stephanie: I had the same curiosity. So I asked.

Frances: That's a fair question. And I'm going to have to sit here and think about that for a minute. I mean honestly. But to me, it's the ins and the outs of every single day. It's knowing what my kids had for breakfast, knowing what's in their lunch box, knowing who their friends are, knowing exactly where they are after school. Maybe all parents know those things. I don't know. So I think that would be my answer. It's knowing all of it and being part of all of it.

Jill: And for those wondering what “all of it” means to Frances? Don’t worry, we’ll get into it in just a moment.

Stephanie: But first, let me give you a little picture of who she is. I traveled to the upscale neighborhood of Ballantyne to interview Frances. She looks like she may be in her mid-40s, she’s dressed comfortably in loose-fitting jeans and a vest. She doesn’t fit any of the stay-at-home mom stereotypes. She isn’t frazzled or a trophy wife. She just looks like a normal mom. She looks authentic, and she’s warm and eager. As we sit down to set up the interview, she starts pulling things out of her bag. A BP-whatever free plastic water bottle for her cold water. A big metal thermos for her hot beverage. We are only planning to talk for 40 minutes and she has prepared to drink about 2 ounces per minute.

Jill: Sounds like a lot to carry around! I can’t even remember a water bottle when I go hiking.

Stephanie: I can’t imagine what else is in that bag. But also, she brings with her a childlike curiosity. She asks me how the equipment works. She wants to put the headphones on. Asks if I will take a picture of her with the microphone.

Jill: Really? I've haven’t had anyone ask to wear headphones.

Stephanie: Me either, but every time I have my recording stuff out, I find one of my kids with the headphones on. It's like she sees the world their way.

Jill: That makes sense. It seems like Frances has always been focused on how kids see the world. After all, she studied English in college, got a teaching certificate and then taught high school English after graduation.

Frances: But when I had children, knowing, unfortunately, what teachers make — am I going to raise other people's children in the classroom and work hard to raise other people's children in the classroom (knowing what I would then make to potentially give to childcare)? Or I could spend that time at home with my own children.

Stephanie: And so when she had her first baby, she made the shift to her new career.

Jill: So, what does she call this role? Because we tend to throw around terms like "homemaker," "housewife," "stay-at-home mom." But what term does she use?

Stephanie: She prefers “stay-at-home mom.” Or more precisely ...

Frances: A stay-at-home mom who does not actually stay home. I am not home a lot.

Stephanie: Frances is in the back-nine of the stay-at-home mom career. Her three kids are all teenagers now, but she reminisces about when they were little.

Frances: In the early days, staying home with children is getting them out of bed, getting them ready for the day, changing diapers. Throw in a diaper explosion on top of that. Throw in, “Oh, the baby needs to nurse.” The baby's diaper is leaking. Someone wants Cheerios, can't reach the Cheerios, climbs the pantry, grab something, it spills all over the floor. Thinking about it now, I sort of say it jokingly, but it's so much. And in my brain, as I'm describing it, it feels very frantic and chaotic.

Jill: I remember those frantic times. However, with my son, my role as a parent has evolved as he’s grown older. He’ll always need his mom, but for us, my role has changed from disciplinarian to adviser. Has Frances seen that kind of an evolution?

Stephanie: Frances sees the job of parenting older kids as much of a hands-on job as taking care of little ones.

Frances: My children need me more, almost, in a very different way. But they need me all the same as they did when they were younger. They need me emotionally more than they did. So I sent my kid off to the largest high school in North Carolina, but I'm still the same. I still have the same expectations. I had the same ideals. Same as when I sent my daughter off to college. I'm still the same parent. That doesn't mean that there's not some letting go, but I'm still the same and that's not going to change.

Stephanie: So for Frances, what it means to be "the same" is that she still packs their lunches, still weighs in on all major and many minor decisions, and she completes every question on the seventh grade math homework to make sure she knows precisely how to help her son.

Jill: Frances says she spends most of her time out of the home. A lot of that time is spent volunteering at her kids' school, their church groups and their clubs.

Frances: Thinking about why I volunteer, at the heart of it, it's because of my children. I want to better the programs that they're involved in.

Stephanie: And these volunteer jobs also stretch Frances in some meaningful ways too. For example, she worked on the marketing for her kids’ theater group.

Frances: Being a mother, being a volunteer, has given me a whole new set of skills. I built a website. I had never built a website! I really feel like I can do anything. At least, I have the attitude that I think I can.

Jill: I remember the first website that I built. It was totally empowering. Do you think she thought being a stay-at-home mom included web design?

Stephanie: Nope, I don't think that she anticipated quite as much geometry or computer skills. One thing that struck me about my conversation with Frances is how confident she was and is about her choice to have this career — a career that doesn't provide a paycheck. Listen to how she describes her decision to be a stay-at-home mom.

Frances: I wanted that for myself and especially for my children. I wanted that for my family. And going into the marriage, we both felt pretty confident that financially we would be able to make that decision for our family. I married a very smart man. He was several years older. But he went to graduate school, and he knew his path pretty early on. We just knew, too, that we would be provided for, if that makes sense. We had that faith that even if he was not as successful as he has been, we just knew that it would be OK.

Jill: Most people make a few job changes over the span of a couple of decades. She must have a really strong reason to stick with this as her only job for nearly 20 years, especially a job without a paycheck.

Stephanie: Yes, she does.

Frances: I couldn't at that point see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I knew somewhere it was all going to pay off.

Stephanie: And the payoff for Frances is the success of her kids.

Frances: Of course, I am aware of what people may think. I mean, I'm surrounded by very successful people, successful moms who stay home, who volunteer more than I do, whose children are the top of the top, the best of the best. But also I'm surrounded by people who have children who are top of the top, best of the best, who also work.

Stephanie: She measures her success in the achievements of her children. Creating the conditions where they can become the best of the best.

Frances: And I tell people on Facebook. We all post pictures of our children, “This is what my kid did.” And maybe people get sick of hearing about my successful children. But I think I actually said this on Facebook one time, “This is my raise. This is my paycheck. This is my bonus. My promotion is my children and their successes.”

Jill: I think it is fair to say that Frances is pretty confident in her career choice and its outcomes. That is wonderful. As women, we get a lot of conflicting messages: Have kids, have a career, have it all, be perfect. It’s totally exhausting. I’ve worked throughout my son’s whole life, so I’ve done both volunteer at his school and had to miss a class party when I couldn’t get off work. I often felt guilty when I couldn’t do the impossible. I wonder if Frances feels the sting from the other side of that message. The side that says being a stay-at-home mom means you aren’t accomplishing enough?

Stephanie: Such a good point, Jill. And yes, Frances is impacted by the message that women should try and have it all. She told me a story about a time she ran into a woman who was raising successful kids and also working a demanding job.

Frances: There was a woman, I'll never forget it, and she lived across the street from me and maybe I made some assumptions about where I lived and what people did, but she introduced herself when we were talking. And so that conversation's a little uncomfortable. “So what do you do?” “I stay home. Well, what do you do?” “I'm a doctor.” OK. You know, that it sort of shifts, right? It sort of shifts the conversation a little bit. When I see people doing what I do very successfully and also being a doctor, there might be a little insecurity there.

Stephanie: Despite moments like that, she remains steadfast in her purpose.

Frances: I keep going back to it: I just have to be confident in my own decision. I mean, especially after 19 years, I can't second-guess what I've been doing.

Stephanie: And she reiterates that she really does feel successful because her kids are healthy, happy and accomplished and that's all the success she needs.

Frances: And so when I post the success of my children, I mean, of course I'm proud of them, and I want to brag on them and I want to shout it from the rooftops like, “This is what my children do!” But it really is because I don't get a paycheck. So that's my bonus. That's my raise and my promotion — is the success of my children.

Jill: Frances provided one definition of success. Coming up, we'll hear another definition from Buster, who we introduced you to at the top of the episode. He’s a barber who is adamant that he doesn't have a job, but he does have a powerful perspective about success. That's right after the break on the Work It podcast.

Act 2: Buster

Buster: Actually, I didn't want to work. I didn't want to work for anybody. So I felt like if I was a barber, I could be my own entrepreneur or whatever I wanted to do. And I succeeded, and now I'm a barber, and that's what I love to do.

Stephanie: Buster didn't really set out to be a barber. But when the opportunity arose, he decided to add barbering to his skillset.

Buster: It wasn't more of I wanted to be a barber. It was more of trying to get something under my belt, like have a trade or professional career or whatever, something under my belt.

Jill: I sat down to interview Buster at my kitchen island late one night.

Buster: My name is Buster. Well, my government name is Andre Gilliard. I'm also known as Buster.

Jill: It doesn’t take long before I get why people love sitting in his chair. He’s upbeat and relaxed, in his mid-40s, but doesn’t look it. I guess the thing I’m trying to describe is Buster has that relaxed, chill vibe, like you've had a couple of drinks. Stephanie, you know that feeling.

Stephanie: Oh come on, Jill, you know I’m sick after two drinks. The feeling you describe is what I get after half of one! But yes, Buster does make you feel at home. Buster knows how to have a conversation. In fact, he says that's a big part of what he does at the shop. His customers come in for two things: a haircut and a chitchat.

Buster Gilliard speaks with Stephanie Hale.
Jill Bjers
Buster Gilliard speaks with Stephanie Hale.

Buster: So a lot of people may not come and get a haircut. A lot of people just like the fact that we talk, just to relax because it is a place to relax and chill. A lot of those people like to come and just talk and communicate and get stuff off their chest. They always say a barbershop is a place where a man can come and vent and whatever. A lot of people come around just to hear other people's stories because in the barbershop, you hear what you hear, you can hear some mess, in the barbershops. I know you can.

Jill: Stephanie, you love chatting with people, you should take up barbering.

Stephanie: I would love that part of the job. But I'm too chicken to try and cut anyone's hair. That sounds so scary to me. For me, cutting someone's hair and hoping it works out sounds like a terrifying job. Barbers are brave. You do all sorts of adventurous things to your hair, Jill, so maybe you would be the better barber.

Jill: Coloring hair, sure. But I’m still traumatized from my childhood when my mom cut my hair to nothing while she “tried to get the sides even” — and then she permed it! For Buster, he had to work up the courage the first few times.

Buster: I'll never forget, that's my first-time ever cut. I was talking to a group of guys, and we’re laughing until he called my name and say, “Andre come here. Go to your station and set your equipment up.” So the joke’s over now. I go set the equipment up, and the guy sat down in my chair and wanted a fade. I'm like two weeks in school, and I had never picked up clippers before, so once I started cutting, I made some mistakes. The guy ended up saying, “You messed my hair up!” And I said, “Oh Lord, let me get the instructor.”

Jill: Don’t worry. Buster survived that first fade and got right back at it.

Stephanie: See, that's exactly what I'd be afraid of! Screwing up someone’s hair and having them be really mad at me.

Buster: That’s how you cut. You learn by your mistakes. In this game you can lose, you can win, they can come back, they probably won't come back. So you’re on a balance beam and this in this business.

Jill: Buster has been cutting hair for over 12 years, so he’s not in those situations very often anymore — but it still happens. In fact, when I dropped by his barbershop a few months back, I got to see Buster sweat it out with a very precocious 6-year-old named Prince.

Buster: So he wanted to do an initial "P" on the side of his head along with the two parts. I was trying my best to fight against it because I'm not a designer. But I had to try to trick him. I told him, “Look, I’m going to call your grandpa and confirm that your grandpa wants you to get the 'P' and the two parts.” He called my bluff, so I called and put it on speaker phone. So Grandpa was like, “Yeah, you can get it.” I'm like, “Oh God, I lost that battle.”

Jill: Little Prince ended up with that “P” in the side of his head and loved it.

Stephanie: Getting pressured by a 6-year-old. Buster, I've been there.

Jill: And this story is important to understand who Buster is and how he defines success in his job. Buster has a huge soft spot for kids and loves the opportunity to use his barbering to help out kids in his neighborhood.

Buster: If I could just cut kids' hair, less fortunate kids’ hair, every day for free, I would do it. I really would. Because that’s one thing about me: I'm a barber. I know how a child’s head should look, and for the less fortunate ones that can't afford it, that’s where I step in.

Stephanie: Buster doesn't just do a couple of free cuts here and there. He’s always looking out for the kids in his neighborhood.

Buster: So once I started cutting and realizing how much I can help people doing this, like people who really need help, that's when I found the passion for it because I knew I could help people. I throw it out there to everywhere I go. Like at church, I let people know if the kid's doing good in school grades-wise or birthdays or whatever, I let them know to come to me. I give them a free haircut. If I hit the lottery for $1 billion, I think I'll be broke because I love to help people. I really do. So if I did go broke helping people, it wouldn't make me no difference. I've been broke before, so what's being broke again? This is nothing.

Stephanie: His attitude about money makes me reflect on my own money anxiety. Because he’s not afraid of being broke, he can be unrestrained in his generosity.

Jill: Exactly. I asked Buster about how he sets his prices and if he can give himself a raise.

Buster: I can get myself a raise, but I probably won't allow myself to because I know that I want to help people, so I don't want to be greedy and like, “OK, well I'm gonna charge this,” and these people in his neighborhood can’t afford it.

Jill: So he keeps his cuts at an even 10 bucks. One of the most interesting aspects of our conversation with Buster is the way he thinks about what a job is and why he doesn't want one.

Stephanie: Yeah, we are sitting there at Jill's kitchen island, and he keeps telling us about how he doesn't have a job, doesn't want a job, keeps telling his son that he shouldn't get a job, but his son won't listen.

Jill: Look, we recognize the irony here: we’re here interviewing him about his job, and he’s convinced he doesn’t even have one.

Stephanie: Right, so I asked him if barbering isn't a job, what is?

Buster: It’s different when you go to a job, and you work in a job and you're like, “Damn, I don't want to be here. I’m tired of this or that.” I'm not really one too good at waking up happy to go to a job. So that's another reason why I chose to barber because I can make my own schedule, wake up when I want to, do what I want to do, don't have to answer to nobody. I love to just say, “I'm not going to come today. I'll just want to go do what I want to do.” I know that may sound lazy to some people. I know they’re like, “Aw man, he don't love his job. He just damn lazy as hell.” But if you chose this profession, you will probably love it, too. Because you can, like I say, you can do what you want being a barber.

Jill: Success isn’t tied to money for Buster. Neither are titles. When we asked him what reactions he gets when people ask him what he does, he had a pretty strong reaction to that question.

Buster: I feel like when you ask a person what type of work they do, it is basically you being nosy. You want to know how much they make or the type of career you have before you open up to that person. That's just how I feel about. I mean, like, where did that come from?

Stephanie: So he doesn’t like answering that question and also ...

Buster: I don't ask that question. Whatever you do, however you work, whatever you do to make your money, that is on you. I'd rather talk about the basketball games. You can't just judge people.

Jill: For Buster, success isn’t about money or status. It’s about doing work he enjoys, giving to his community and working enough to live.

Stephanie: So when we compare Buster with Frances, from earlier in the episode, they are really driven by different things. For Frances, career success is about the outcome, the accomplishments of her children. That’s possible to measure in scouting badges, lead roles in theater productions, college acceptances, etc. And as time goes on, it is easy to count those up to track your progress. And if anyone else is concerned about your success, those accomplishments are easy to point to.

Jill: But for Buster, it’s an entirely different equation. It’s more about the process than the outcome. No big house or organizational title marks his progress toward success. He measures it in the sense of autonomy and how much he can give to his community. Things that others can’t necessarily see on the outside, but he can feel them.

Stephanie: But at the end of the day, they both love their work, and they both describe themselves as successful in what they have chosen to do.

Jill: Even though neither one of them think of it as a job.

Stephanie: These two have helped me to reflect on my own definition of success. I’ve noticed my definition shifting. At a different time in my life, things like marital status, well-behaved kids or a certain title in an organization were important to me, but as the value of those outcomes has been challenged by my life experiences, I’m finding many of those outcomes less compelling. Now, the things that make me feel successful are less tangible and more difficult to measure. So answering the question, “Have I been successful?” is harder. Based on which version of my definition of success? I wonder if maybe success is a moving target for others too?

Jill: It’s definitely a moving target for me, even though I’m not sure I ever consciously thought about what defines success. I know when I was younger, work success was centered around what I could provide my son: stability, travel and a mom who was wholly present at home. As he moved into adulthood, my focus evolved to a bit more of a community view, where I can make a meaningful contribution to a larger community.

Stephanie: So we are like striving, achieving, and then at some point shifting, redefining, striving, achieving, repeat, repeat ... maybe this is what keeps our lives, our careers and our work interesting.


Jill: The Work It podcast is a production of WFAE. This episode was hosted by Stephanie Hale (who measures success by how much fun we’re having).

Stephanie: ... and Jill Bjers (who feels successful when she can avoid the cat traffic jam in her hallway).

Jill: Our producer is Joni Deutsch (who defines success based on the ability to bring her dog to work). Our editor is Greg Collard (who feels absolutely successful when he’s catching a five-pound bass). And a special thanks to our guests for today’s episode: Frances and Buster.

Stephanie: So what is your definition of success? Is it defined by outcomes and achievements? Like sales goals, degrees and titles. Or are you more focused on the process elements like being creative, having flexibility or working with people you like? No matter how you define success, we want to hear your story.

Jill: Yes, you, listening right now, we want your story.

Stephanie: Go to WFAE.org/WorkIt or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast and share with us why we should interview you for an upcoming episode.

Jill: And while you’re at it, make sure to subscribe to the Work It Podcast so you can hear the next episode as soon as it’s released! You can subscribe to Work It on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Stephanie: Until next time, keep on working it.

Stephanie Hales's fascination with people, their work, and the things that drive them is central to her work as a leadership development consultant in her adopted hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hale lives in the University City area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University and obtained her master’s degree from Queens University.
A true Jill-of-all-trades: mother, wife, author/playwright, organizer, and travel junkie. Jill Bjers is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently lives in Seversville area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of Utah.