The Measure of Success

7 min read

Words & Photos by Sammy Spence 



A couple of years ago I was working as a Wilderness Therapy Guide. At the time, I was the lead guide for girls 15-17. One night around the campfire one of the girls told me she didn’t know how to be brave and escape the pressure of what she felt like society wanted for her. So I wrote her this poem about how I escaped the world's idea of success and created my own algorithm for a life well lived. It's a reminder to be proud of this little humble life we’ve created. We may not be wealthy, but I think we’re pretty rich.

They will tell you to get a "real job” tell them that loving the world is a real job. A lifestyle, a moral, a compass. And when they ask why you don't want to grow up and make some real money, tell them you prefer the sound of the rush of the river to the sound of rush hour. Tell them you prefer alpenglow to the blur of city lights. Tell them you prefer your hair messy, tangled, unkept. You are learning through skinned knees and playing with fire, you’re walking down a road less traveled named: braver. When they ask you how you make sunshine and magic out of darkness and rain, tell them you are allowed to look at the world upside down, through a rabbit hole, through the rebellious lens of hope. There actually are no rules, you tell them. When they ask why you spark, tell them you are a very wild thing and bare feet is a lot like baring your soul: very necessary. Tell them you like the taste of freedom with your coffee. Ask if they'd like a sip.

When I got out of college I was tied down with school loans, an art degree I worked so hard for but didn’t know how to use, which left me with a job waiting tables at a fancy sushi restaurant. Every night I smiled and raked in the cash of expensive dinner dates. I spent my days refurbishing old antiques and selling them at different markets around the southeast. I was pressing a paint brush to any surface I could find, but I was bored and honestly I was lost. I was covered with paint and unlived dreams when I met my now-husband. His hands were covered in dirt. It seemed somewhere along the way, he’d left behind the four walls of a cubicle that his college degree pushed him into, and started leading trail crews all over the country. His smile was different than mine, it seemed to reach the fullness of his face. Not even his giant beard could hide it. He spent his days off camping in the woods because his company hadn’t yet finished the housing for employees. I think he fell in love with me because I offered him free showers and laundry.

We moved across the country to Montana and worked on an organic vegetable farm making $9/hr and lived in a 12ft.x12ft. white cabin with no running water and no electricity. There was a little wood burning stove in the corner of the house that kept us forever smelling of fire smoke as the grip of winter rolled in over the crops. We started working at Big Sky Resort that winter.  I taught ski lessons beneath the shadow of Lone Peak and decided the only office view I ever wanted was one deep inside the mountains. To support our nomadic lifestyle that moved and changed with the amount of snow on the hills, we bought an old R&B radio station van that lived in Atlanta and blew the top off and refurbished the inside to a little 27 square foot home. And as the kids are saying, traded four walls for four winter wheels and made our way to Washington state with dreams to ski volcanoes and climb mountains. Who knew we’d start guiding sea kayaking expeditions all over the San Juan Islands or ski 80+ days a winter?

I’m 27 and I’ve never had a regular “9-5” job. And really, I have no plans to start now. Not because I don’t enjoy working hard, but because I don’t think I can trade the kiss of the sun on my face while I work, or the way I feel after a day of kayaking or the weightless freedom of two planks on my feet all winter long for price of a weightier wallet. Besides a heavy wallet never fed a hungry soul, if you ask me.

So what does feed a hungry soul? What is worth having less but doing more. What if we determined success was not a number in a bank account, but the amount of time you gave yourself to not just be alive, but to live. Right now, I am the youngest I’ll ever be. And so are you. My body is healthy, my legs willing to burn to accomplish a goal, my lungs still long to cut through thin air and ache. It’s worth it, when I stand on the summit and feel wonderfully small. Because one day, I won’t be able to climb mountains or walk 100 miles around a volcano… that sounds like a better time to worry about a “9-5” to me.

I think the reason people often value money over experience is because it’s hard to quantify moments of adventure. As humans we want to put a number on everything: likes on photos, the scale we stand on, the size of our pants, the money in our bank account. It’s easy to measure success in the business world by deals made and checks cut. But how do you measure the worth of a climb, crossing the finish line of a marathon, an hour in the sun after a long grey winter? By heart beats? By toothy grins or the way our breath gets stolen by the glory of the summit? How long we pull over to watch in wonder as the sun tucks itself into the horizon? When we stop and realize you cannot measure the worth of the outdoors or an experience out among the wild by a number or a price tag, but rather by how we feel when we spend time outside, I think we’ll find that most of our favorite moments were made of feelings that money just could not buy. Because while money can buy you mountaineering boots or a surfboard or a new van, it can’t buy you the feeling you get when you ride a long blue wave or drive through the night only to see the sun rise above the Rockies, crowning them in golden light.

I know, it’s easy to see our lifestyle and think we don’t work hard or that we’ve somehow snaked the system. But the truth is, we’ve stitched this life together with odd jobs, photo gigs and the promise of a life well lived. Because I want to know I did all the things I said I would. Our life isn’t perfect or necessarily easy. I’ll be the first to tell you sometimes we barely scrape by, eating peanut butter and jelly for every meal, in a van that can smell like wet dog, patiently waiting for that next paycheck. But we have been rich in time together, rich in adventure and the beauty of what this planet holds. We’ve traveled all over Mexico by way of river on a packraft. We’ve scoured lines in British Columbia, looking for fresh snow in the backcountry. I’ve seen the eyes of an orca as she rubbed her bus-sized grace along the side of my kayak. This year alone, I’ve skied more days than I haven’t. And I say all this to remind you, in a world that tells you money is the answer to happiness… you can actually do quite a lot with very little. Because the truth is, when you really think about it, money can only buy you things, a far cry from the raw experiences and real feelings that you will find are purely free.

So I encourage you to take a leap, pack your bags, and head towards adventure. If you don’t love your job, dare I say… quit. Buy or borrow a map and a backpack. Learn to climb that mountain you’ve been staring at from the window of your car as you commute to work. You are alive, so live a little (or a lot). Do the things you want to. Forget your shoes, let the bottoms of your feet grow brown like the dirt, collect wrinkles and welcome them like old friends. I believe we were born to stay a little wild. Leave your clothes on the nearest bush by the riverside and jump in, wearing nothing but your bones. There is bravery in remembering you weren’t born to spend a lifetime with you feet under a desk, but rather running through the mountains, tasting the breath of the pines on your tongue. Don’t worry so much about getting a “real” job, worry more about getting out there and experiencing some real things. Because at the end of the day, money is just something we use to measure success.  So what if we start measuring success by the amount of nights we spent with the stars as our street lamps, or the dirt under our nails or the amount of times we said: wow, as we walked along the skin of the earth.