The Unsuccessful Sister

college graduation

So, wait. If my youngest sister is not the unsuccessful sister, and my middle-little is also successful–then that would leave…


That’s right! My name is Mrs. Fi, and I have been deemed “unsuccessful” by my oh-so-honest and friendly coworker! Let’s rewind a bit.

If you saw our most recent post, you know that last month I traveled to Texas to watch my middle-little sister graduate from college. She worked five, grueling years to become an architect by working late nights into early mornings. Her major requires hours of studying and building models. Additionally, students pursuing this degree are not allowed to have a job wThe Unsuccessful Sisterhile going to architecture school during their first few years. With her busy schedule, I doubt she could fit a part-time gig into her schedule.

But now, after years of debt built up and little to no money left, she has a job right out of school. This is great, given the fact that roughly half of her fellow graduates have jobs lined up. Her story is a story of success – not only in the academic world, but also in the professional world.

Then there’s my little-little sister. She is currently attending college in Texas — these girls are all about going back to our family’s roots to become a nurse. She’s always been a people person and actually seems to enjoy dealing with people and their physical illness (more power to her – I’ll be over here next to the hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes). And she’s really good at it! She just tested into the 80th percentile in the country with her last nursing test.

Turns out, I might be unsuccessful

I’ll set the scene:

It was a beautiful Spring day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and my coworkers and I decided to walk a couple of laps around our office building to admire the wildflowers before heading to our next meeting. I took in a deep breath of the fresh, cool, Montana air before offering up the first topic of our walk.

Me: “Well! I’m about ready to head down to Texas for my sister’s graduation this weekend! Mostly packed and ready to go, just a few other things to take care of.

Coworker: Oh yeah, what’s your sister going to be after she graduates again?

Me: An architect.

Coworker: And what did you say your other sister was going to be?

Me: A nurse.

Coworker: Oh…so what happened to you?

Me: What do you mean?

Coworker: Well it sounds like they’re both going to be rich and successful and you work here…so…

Me: So I’m unsuccessful because I work here? You know YOU work here too, right?

Coworker: Yeah, but I’m the ‘success story’ in my family!

Me: Well, alright then. Good for you.”

End Scene.

There you have it. According to my coworker, I am the least successful of my siblings. And, by the tone of his voice during that lovely chat, I’m certain he believed that if he were to ask my parents about their children they would say something like: “Well, we have two daughters that we are SO proud of…and then there’s our oldest. Not sure what happened with her.”

Yes, although I was working for a well-known company that prides itself on being difficult to get into, when comparing my job to the jobs which my sisters would soon be acquiring, I apparently took the route of slacker. The underachiever.

Time for a social experiment

Instead of getting mad, I was simply intrigued. Sure, the way he expressed his feelings was without tact and seen as downright rude by my other coworkers. But that didn’t concern me — I’ve never taken to heart what other people said or thought of me. I have, however, always been fascinated in the ‘why’ of what people say or think. His comment got me to thinking — was he the only one who felt this way or did most people feel this way? Was I seen as unsuccessful simply in comparison to my sisters? Or was I seen as unsuccessful in general because of my schooling choices and current job?

Little did he know, my coworker had set my brain into experiment mode. With my sister’s graduation at hand and the inevitable, “so what are you doing now” questions from family and friends sure to come up, I started paying attention to people’s reactions to my answer. Nerd-mode initiated.

Note: This mission to decide how others react to my success vs. my sisters did not steal my focus or anyone else’s from my sister’s accomplishments – I made sure of it. Not one person was aware of my observation and will never know unless, by some stroke of chance, they happen to read this blog post and know who I am. There is no jealousy here. I am proud of my sister and her achievements and no comparison made by others is going to shake that.

The results

I’m not going to go into too many specifics, but here is a summary of the reactions during my time in Texas and the following weeks:

1. People are, for the most part, very good at not showing how they really feel about something if they think it will hurt your feelings. If I wasn’t looking for sincere reactions, I wouldn’t have noticed some of the telltale signs of people’s true feelings about my answers to their questions.

I did receive a pat on the back after telling one person what I do for a living…still trying to decide if that was a pity pat or just a friendly pat.

Another lady I talked to asked me about my sister’s future, then about my current job situation. Finally, she asked if I was thinking about going back to school. So I chalked that not-so-subtle hint up to her thinking I was “unsuccessful” and the answer to my “problem” is more school. I probably could have taken school more seriously while I was in it–all that gallivanting around Europe and Central America can do the brain harm.

2. Overall, my peers were much less concerned with my job status than people my parent’s age and older. When they asked me what I do for work, the sense that I got was they don’t see my job status as anything to be concerned about. They thought of my job as “my job for now,” not “my job forever.” Whereas when my mother’s friends or older relatives asked, I got the distinct feeling that they were under the assumption that I had “made my bed” with my school and job choices.

This all makes sense given how differently each of these generations views how our jobs fit into our lives. For my generation, staying with one company more than five years is a rarity. For my parent’s generation, I know many people who have been with their companies 15+ years. So for them, choosing a job is choosing a large part of your life. Scary.

3. People will always be less impressed by a job they don’t know or understand. For instance, I could say I am a farmer and be a very successful farmer. I could run my own company, make more than enough money to live well, and travel when I like. But people would never see me or any farmer in the way that they’d see a lawyer or a doctor. It takes years of schooling (and loads of money) to enter that elite group of money-makers. Even if the people in this elite group aren’t super successful, they’re still a cut above the rest because of societal dictation.

Everyone views success differently

For my coworker, success was having a well-known job title or making more money than others. For my sister, success was graduating from college with a degree in a field she cared about and obtaining a job right off the bat. And for her, the debt she accrued (see: mountain) was just a small price to pay to reach her goal of “dream job.” If I were her, the debt would take the fun out of the equation. However, our minds and goals are different, so she doesn’t view it the same.

For me, I found success in college by studying abroad twice and graduating nearly debt free. I find success in my job by being good at it. My job pays me enough money to save for early retirement, have killer insurance, and the flexibility of working at home two days a week. I may never make as much money as my sisters, but that’s not my goal. My goal is freedom from work.

Comparing others’ success to your own is a game no one wins. I’m not going to say I never do it, but I realize it’s a silly way of thinking. It’s like comparing happiness to happiness. If two people are happily living different lives but they are happy, is one person’s happiness more valid than the others? Is the other person’s happiness less valid or real because they found happiness off the beaten path? Whether you’re a farmer who found happiness growing and selling your fruits of labor, or a student aspiring to greatness but may not want the success others expect of you, don’t sell yourself short. Just because someone else may not understand your life pursuits doesn’t mean they are unworthy. In the end, you decide what success is anyway.

How do you view success?

Do you think you’re successful? Do you ever envy others’ success? I’d love to know!


  1. free2pursue

    Yes! Great post. When I left my great-paying but soul-sucking corporate job, my mother went into mourning, despite seeing how happy I was. I guess that “what do you do” status/cred is everything to the baby boomer generation.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      How silly! It’s so true though. I rarely come in contact with a baby boomer who isn’t defining success by a job title. I just hope our generation doesn’t continue with that view! Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for commenting!

  2. Ditching the Grind

    Great story! I often find myself saying things a certain way just to see the reactions from other people. It’s almost like treating everyday life itself as an experiment. You can learn some fascinating things about others by doing this.

    It’s really cool you got to study abroad while in school. That’s one of the few regrets I have. We’re hoping our early retirement will include lots of travel.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      Thank you, DTG! Glad you enjoyed it! Sometimes I think I have a little too much fun experimenting and can get a little carried away. The key is to not tell your test subjects, even after you’ve completed your experiment, that they were variables. And definitely don’t tell them that they were your “manipulated variables.” People don’t seem to like that very much 😉

      As for studying abroad, I’m really glad I as able to do so twice and convince my husband to join the second time around (although it didn’t take much convincing…I mean, it was COSTA RICA). If you ever get the chance again, take it. It’s so worth it! We plan to keep traveling in the future (especially during ER), like you. Thanks for commenting!

  3. colormefrugal1

    Great post! Over the course of the last year or so I’ve changed my definition of successful. Until a year ago, I had an easily-defined, high paying job. But I was beyond miserable. A year ago I (mercifully) left that job to be a stay at home mom. I am ten million times happier now, but I often get the feeling that my mother really wants me to go back to that job, probably because she liked telling others of my “success” I guess? And I don’t think that being a happy mom with a happy child falls under her definition of “success.” For me, the absolute hardest thing about becoming a stay at home mom has been dealing with others’ perception of what I’m doing now in respect to the life I left behind (which was a very sad life from my vantage point). But I just can’t live my life to make others happy. I think as long as you are content with what you are doing in life, that’s the only thing that really matters!

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      You are so right – living your life for others is a losing game. I’m glad you’ve found something that makes you happy (I’ve heard children can certainly have that affect!) and that you’ve become OK with your definition of success. Being content with what you’re doing is one of the hardest things for people to achieve in life, so you’re a step above the rest in that regard as well. Keep doing you and I think eventually, most people will start to see you as successful for different reasons other than just your job title. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  4. Fervent Finance

    I don’t know how close you and your coworker are, but with my coworkers that definitely would have been a joke, nothing to take personally. (Generalization ahead) but a lot of people define success at finding a “good” job you’re going to make good money at for the next 40 years. A company that everyone knows the name of also adds bonus points. Who cares what people think about your job as long as you somewhat enjoy it, and it will get you to your goal of FI!!

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I think my coworker was somewhere in between joking and being serious. My team of coworkers and I are pretty close, and sometimes this particular coworker acts like (for lack of a better example) a butt-headed, big brother who says things that he doesn’t really intend to be mean, but also isn’t afraid to be bluntly honest while also kidding around. Does that make sense? It makes sense in my head.

      Anyway, I didn’t take what he said to heart because I agree, who cares? I’m going to be FI! However, my innate curiosity when it comes to the human psyche made me experiment further, just because. 😉

      Thanks for your comment and encouragement, fellow FIRE fighter!

  5. middle class

    Interesting post. Both my siblings went to more well-known schools for their B.A. and have a Masters. In terms of income, I think I make more than one but less than the other, although if the one making the least ever gets his/her dream job, he/she will make more I do. I think my parents think we’re all not successful enough!

    I know my in-laws don’t view my modest career/schooling as success because they tell others about my previous job w/ a better title at a prestigious place AND they also say that I went to a different but more well-known school. I did attend that well-known school but only for a certificate program.

    Do I care? Not usually. I wouldn’t have changed my path anyway to please my parents, in-laws or typical society.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      While it’s usually very easy for me to not care what people think, it always has been a little harder for me when it comes to family. Yes, I know my goals and happiness are ultimately up to me and it’s my opinion that should matter in the end, but it can still be tough knowing that you or your choices may not be seen as “good enough” to those you care about. Changing your path just because others want you to just leads to another road full of resentment and unhappiness. I’m happy to hear that you’ve realized your path is the one you wanted to follow and stuck to it, despite the naysayers along the way. Thanks for your comment!

  6. The Bearded Dragon

    I’ve dealt with this from the other side of the coin. I am the “success” story in my family, with a PhD in a STEM field. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel like a success. But I have a sister who majored in Photography and spent a lot of time after school working in the restaurant/service business. She’s an incredible person and has many excellent qualities that I wish I had. It’s awkward having conversations around the holidays when people ask me what I do and smile and nod and then ask her and act like “Ooohhhh…. wish I hadn’t asked.” Success is very much in the eyes of the beholder, and success comes in as many styles as there are people.

    Also, I read this quote recently and it seems relevant to the conversation: “A (wo)man is a success if (s)he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between (s)he does what (s)he wants to do.’ – Bob Dylan

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I think it’s so awesome that you not only see yourself as a success but your sister as well, despite how everyone else sees her. That’s a sign of a good sibling, right there 😉

      Also, while I like your Bob Dylan quote, I think I like what you said right before it even more: “Success is very much in the eyes of the beholder, and success comes in as many styles as there are people.” Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing your story and quotes!

  7. evenstevenmoney

    To each their own is a phrase I use and I think it applies to success. You are absolutely right that society can view a doctor more successful than a teacher or writer, but what if they were truly happy with no debt and a higher net worth, behind the curtain can reveal the truth, although most people will never see behind the curtain.

    Enjoyed the read, thanks.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      “Most people will never see behind the curtain.” So true. We don’t know what’s behind most people’s “curtains” (ie. circumstances, desires or views of success) so it’s best not to judge or think that we know better from what little we do see. Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the post!

  8. Kurt

    I’ve never been much concerned I guess with how others view my degree of success. One of my brothers clearly views success solely through a monetary lens, and everything he does screams ‘I have money!’ On the other hand, I suspect most people have little idea of my family’s net worth. I feel successful when I achieve something worthwhile or that was very challenging–such as climbing Colorado’s Mt. Elbert, which I’ve done. Any connection to money is purely circumstantial.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      Hi Kurt! While I can’t say I’ve climbed any mountains (I’m still a novice hiker so small hills are my jam) I think your view of success is spot on. I feel success through completing the challenges that have been thrown at me in life. Not to say that money is not a challenge at times, but I don’t think the act of accumulating more money should be the focus for success so much as the result of saving said money and applying it to bigger and better goals. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Michelle

    Fabulous post! I have a younger sister I am always being compared to. Both of us graduated with education degrees. My sister took her time, stayed at home, and graduated with no debt. She still teaches special ed and because of that, will have her student debt paid for by the government.

    I, on the other hand, graduated from a private school aways from home with about 25k in debt. I traveled the world, lived on my own in the big city, left teaching (I taught music where there is zero jobs), worked at a university, and now own my own business.

    Which one is the success story in the family? Me, oddly enough. My family views my independence as success despite not making nearly as much as my sister or being debt free like her. It’s such an odd way to view it.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      Thank you, Michelle – I’m glad you enjoyed it! As for your family viewing your independence as success, I totally get it. Then again, the mister and I are seeking financial independence and once we reach that, it will added to the list our successes…so I may be a little bias 😉 Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  10. weenie

    Hi there
    I really enjoyed reading your post as I could identify with it – thanks! I am the underachieving daughter in my family….according to my Mum and my Mum’s friends (they don’t say it out loud but I can tell from their expressions…).

    Me and my sisters all went to university and graduated, so pretty all even there.

    However, I have a sister who has a fabulous high-flying career in finance.

    I have another sister who’s given my Mum a lovely grandson.

    And omg, the sister who has both children AND the successful career – she can do no wrong in my Mum’s eyes!

    Me? I haven’t given my parents lovely grandchildren but I have a good career, just not one that is “dazzling” enough for my Mum.

    I recalled the shock of my friends and colleagues when I told them that I was thought of as the underachiever in the family. They said that I must be under a lot of pressure from my family.

    Yes and no. Yes, because my Mum still piles on the pressure about me doing more, earning more.

    No, because I learned a long time ago to ignore what’s she’s saying and just carry on doing what I’m doing and yes, she’s accused me, saying “you’re just like your Dad!” haha!

    Success is just perception, so differs from person to person.

    Do I think I’m successful? Yes, I do! 🙂

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! And even more glad that you still find yourself successful despite what other people tell you! That’s the hardest part for so many people without actually told they’re seen as unsuccessful like you have been! You got some kind of strength in you for choosing not to listen to what others think and following your own path to your definition of success instead of trying to be someone you’re not. I applaud you 🙂

  11. stephanie

    ok, I have to crack up a bit. I am married to an architect whom I met when he was in architecture school so yes, he had NO time for a job. Also through him I know A LOT of architects. They do NOT make lots of money unless you own the firm. I don’t know why people’s perception of this is so skewed – I blame the movies in which they drive audis to their glass walled houses of their own design. As a matter of fact, I, with my history major, make more money than he does and I have for the past 7 years . . . So, yes, while there might a public perception of ‘success’ with a perceived prestigious job . . . reality is a different story.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      Hi Stephanie! I think you’re completely right. When was the last time you saw a movie or TV show that had an architect that wasn’t successful and making loads of money by owning they’re own firm, designing skyscrapers and working late nights (I may or may not be thinking of How I Met Your Mother while writing this)? I think when most people think “architect” they think “individual” not “company,” and that’s where a big part of the money-making misconception happens. If most people knew the reality of how much many architects actually make in comparison to say…a history major, I wonder if there wouldn’t be more history majors out there? 😉 Thanks for your comment!

    2. Rebecca Petersen

      Stephanie, I was just about to comment and say the same thing! My sister-in-law is an architect, and I make more more money than she does. I’m sure that most people would look at her and see her as being way more successful than me. She’s an architect, has a Master’s degree, and married with a baby. She also has loads of debt. On the other hand, I am an interior designer, no Master’s degree and no baby. Yet I make more money than my SIL and have less debt.

      1. Post
        Mrs. FI

        Thank you for sharing, Rebecca! According to the comments similar to yours, it seems that many people view success not only in the amount of money that one makes, but in the college degree held by said person as well. And in many cases, the degree a person holds outweighs the size of the paycheck they receive. It’s cases like these that make me think, “What century do we live in?” The titles that people hold carry way too much weight when it comes to how people view success.

  12. Emma | Money Can Buy Me Happiness

    Having transitioned from a successful marketing career to that of a semi-retired travelling mother I totally relate to this post. My brother is now in business school and I know he will be deemed the more ‘successful’. It’s just the way of the world. I like the focus on happiness, at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I totally agree, Emma. Studies upon studies show happiness is ultimately what everyone seeks. Some people think they’ll find this through academic or occupational successes while others try and find it through less traditional avenues, like many of us out there in the FIRE community. Both are valid pursuits but, in my opinion, shouldn’t be compared. I’m glad to hear you’re seeking success on your own terms and not in comparison to your brother’s 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  13. FI Monkey

    I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and yet I have a job which many need a bachelor’s degree for. This has led to some interesting conversations.

    Interesting in that it reveals the way people view the way the world works. Not so much in the way that people view those that take a different path.

    Typically, people ask me what I do for a living first and I’ll tell them. Oh, I’m a software engineer. And then several questions later, they’ll ask where I went to school.

    Oh, I didn’t finish school. I dropped out when I figured out I didn’t need it.

    Cue awkward silence. Followed by…

    Ah.. okay.

    And, of course, at some point they could be right. But I’ve had that same conversation for the past ten years and, so far, it hasn’t.

    In fact, I make more money than most of my peers. At least the peers who discuss it openly with me. And that’s not to brag, it’s just to point out the way people shut down when they think you’ve failed.

    No matter how I explain to people that I’m doing well in some way, not completing a degree is like a black mark on my record. I’m tagged as a failure, even though I did it on purpose.

    I’m sure there are people here who view my story the same way as the people I’m talking about, and that’s fine. A degree is just one part of how many people view success.

    But me, I define success differently. School and a job are not the end goal. The goal is happiness and being with the people I love. The more I can maximize both, the more successful I become.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      Wow! That’s crazy to me that people could see someone who has a career in something like software engineering and who gets paid more than their peers that went to college as unsuccessful. And all just because you got to this point by not going to school? If anything, I find that MORE impressive. That means you took the initiative to learn your craft without having to pay someone else to teach you for years of your time and thousands of your dollars. Then by adding your existentialist goals of happiness and spending time with the people you love to your professional success, why that’s no black mark at all. That’s a big gold star! 😉 Thanks for sharing your story!

      1. FI Monkey

        That means a lot to me. Not everyone sees it this way, but I don’t think everyone is framing it that way either. People typically frame success in their own terms and if your story doesn’t measure up, well …

        Still, I appreciate you letting me share my story here. If I can help someone else who doesn’t mind spending their time building technical skills the way I did to feel more successful, I’ll have done my job.

        Thanks so much!

  14. slowlysippingcoffee

    I will admit it – I am pretty successful in most people’s eyes… and I often wonder how I will deal with what is a totally nontraditional version of success in a few years after we save enough money. I wonder how I will deal when people ask me what I do, and I say “Oh, I’m a mom”. I realize this mental issue is going to be the hardest part of retiring early for me, even harder than saving all the money. Lately, my mantra in justifying the plan to retire early is “Why keep playing the game if you’ve already won?” I need to learn to think of myself as a winner, not a slacker!

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I think this is something that a lot of people wonder when they are choosing between being in the workforce or being a full-time parent. I know I’ve thought about it for our future when we venture to have kids. And although I have my current definition of success written out, that doesn’t mean that I’m not still trying to shed the idea of success that’s been ingrained in me since elementary school. I often find myself trying to acquire more “gold stars” than everyone else around me at work, at church and in my social life. I’m competitive by nature, so I totally know what you’re saying in regards to being views as a “slacker.” I often have to remind myself that the metaphorical stars people give out are just stickers and, once it’s all said and done, no one will remember how many stars I had on my report card. So I’m hoping this post helps people to realize that instead of gathering stickers from everyone else, why have not have your own goals and reward system (mine includes chocolate)? That way, the only person who can say you’re slacking or winning is you? Cheesy, I know. But sometimes a little cheese is needed in life. Thanks for commenting – and you’re a winner in my book! 😉

  15. Steve Adcock

    To me, being successful is the mark of accomplishing your personal goals. If that happens to be a certain job title or salary mark, then so be it. But for me, it’s far, far from that, or quite frankly, anything even remotely close to a job.

    My goal is to retire early, explore our world and enjoy life. If I am able to accomplish that feat, then I will have been successful in my life. I set a goal in place and I achieved it…and best of all, I was happy while doing so.

    I laugh when people equate success with money. That probably doesn’t help the situation that I’m in, so I probably shouldn’t laugh. But, I do. In my view, it is such a shallow, intellectually hollow way to view “success”.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      What an eloquent assessment of success in relation to money! We completely agree that many people share such a narrow way of thinking when it comes to that subject. Success should be so much more than money, like your goals for instance. While your aspirations obviously involve money, they also show that you care about your time, your knowledge of the world around you and your overall happiness. Achieving those pursuits sounds so much more rewarding than adding to a pile of money and calling it a day. Thanks for sharing your idea of success!

  16. Kate@GoodnightDebt

    I wouldn’t worry about it. People like and need to put others in boxes. It helps our brains work better. Your sisters chose fields with easy and readily identifiable titles. Nurse and Architect are easy to categorize. Add on “successful” to the front and people hear “success in something I understand.”
    I was the “successful” sister for a long time. Great grades in college then law school. Then I went “rogue.” While I’m technically an attorney, I don’t practice. To make matters worse, I work in an area that doesn’t have a clean title. When I talk to people, they think I’m not successful because I’m not practicing and they don’t understand what I do. They don’t have a box for me. And that’s okay.

    1. Post
      Mrs. FI

      I love your box analogy – it gives great visualization to what the brain does in these situations. I’m happy to be thinking “outside the box” (and not in a “getting tacos instead of burgers” kind of way – thanks Taco Bell for forever being connected to that saying) and I’m glad you are, too. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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