• Renea Skelton, PhD

Are YOU Successful?!

What does success mean to you?

A promotion? Reaching a goal that you set for yourself? Just getting through the day?

Think about it. How do you attain success?

Let’s go deeper…

How do you measure it? How do you know you have success?

I recently retired from the Air Force after serving 22 years active duty. Literally, half of my life was dedicated to serving our nation. During retirement ceremonies, it is customary for the retiree to deliver a speech to thank those who served with them (peers, co-workers, family, friends, etc.) followed by a message to the audience. I spent a few days thinking of the message that I wanted to convey and the legacy that I wanted to leave. I also thought on how I could translate the message into a motivation for others to possibly follow. Then, it struck me. Why would I want others to follow my path? I am not better than any of them. Although mentorship is important in specific situations, who am I to mentor to individuals to tell them how they can attain success by following the method that I chose? Why put myself on a pedestal and decide to broadcast my accolades and how I got there? Individuals are, in fact, individuals. Sometimes, I feel as if this becomes muddied during mentorship. Individuals define their own success and I had the unique opportunity to define my own.

From the moment of birth to our death, parameters and standards are set for us. From taking our first steps to the funding we provide charities - parents, teachers, friends, and even supervisors set our path to success. These parameters were set for me and I attained most of them and set many for myself. This methodology is not right or wrong but challenged me to realize that I was attaining many of “their” successes versus my own. Because of this realization, my retirement speech eventually began to formulate into something authentic and vulnerable – something worth delivering…which is exactly what I desired.

For those subscribed to this website, you received a sneak-peek of my speech (one of the added benefits of subscribing). I am also including it below due to the many requests that I received from those that attended or viewed the ceremony via Facebook Live. Note: names were omitted to protect the privacy of the individuals.

As you read my speech, I challenge you to look within yourself and determine how YOU define success – not how others define it for you. This is what success looks like to me:

Retirement Speech:

I thank everyone for being here today to share in my retirement ceremony, it means so much to me to know how much I am blessed.

To my In-laws - you took a chance on me when I was barely 18 years old, you accepted me into your family, and you loved me. You were my dad’s when I needed one…and most importantly, each of you were my mother’s when mine passed. I love you.

To my children – I know that the military life can be difficult. Changing schools, making new friends, and always expecting the unexpected. You amaze me with your resiliency, your positive outlook on life, and how you adapt to change. I am a better mother because of you. I love each of you and excited to spend more time with you. I love you.

To my husband - when I looked into your eyes at the age of 17, I saw my future. Without you, I would never be the person I am today. You cheered me on, provided wisdom, and loved me throughout it all. Growing up dual-military is hard, and many people do not realize it – but we do, and we overcame all obstacles. The Lord gave me the ultimate blessing in life when he sent you to me. You are my soulmate. I love you.

It is bittersweet to realize that the day has finally come for me to hang up this uniform for the next chapter in life. This career has been rewarding and I have learned much from my colleagues, friends, and family that I know will only help me to succeed in my “after-life.”

I could stand here before you and broadcast my many accolades, hardships, and even self-identities such as a believer, a wife, a mother, an Airmen, a friend, a leader. I could also tell you that my favorite color is glitter, I am insanely obsessed with cheese, and cannot stand the touch of cotton balls…seriously…they squeak!

However, the presiding official did an amazing job stating what I have accomplished during my 22 years. I want to show you a side of me that many of you don’t know - I want to be vulnerable with you and give you a small glimpse of who I truly am. Someone who I believe is amazing…a person who dreams big and believes that if you do, big things will happen!

One of my all-time favorite quotes is: if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.

I grew up in a small town in west Texas, graduated with 51 people (my husband being one of them). Life seemed simple. However, looking back I faced many struggles that are blessings today. My mom didn’t have the best of luck in marriages and married numerous times to men who did not treat her well in many ways and I was her passenger during this journey. My half-sister lived only 3 small steps away from my bedroom door and somehow, we were like night and day. During the hot summer months, we played with Barbie dolls in the dirt of our backyard, pretending that our dolls had this luxury life that we secretly envied. Although we did not have much money, my mom made sure that we did not go without the necessities, and even sometimes, splurged on the extras in life – which made us feel valued. Secretly tucked away were life lessons my mom inadvertently taught us that I carry with me today…she was my rock, my biggest fan.

Once I graduated from high school, I decided to join the military. My reason? To get away from a tiny town and become a better version of myself – I just didn’t know what that version was. All I knew is that I just wanted to be successful...I wanted to make my mother proud. I found my way to the local recruiting station and talked with an Army and an AF gentleman. Not going to lie, at 17, I thought that the Army guy was handsome but luckily, I was forward-thinking and figured that my possibility of meeting this Army recruiter again was slim to none. So, I decided to enlist in the Air Force. It was one of the best decisions I made in my life. I was immediately trained as a networking specialist and evolved into a human resource officer that managed over numerous personnel in lodging, dining facilities, fitness centers, military clubs, and mortuary affairs. I was becoming someone. The military defined what success looked like and I was hitting all the targets. At that time, I thought I knew who I was.

During my tenure in the Air Force, I was blessed with three beautiful and talented children, deployed multiple times, traveled to some amazing places, went from enlisted to officer, and somehow found time to obtain a PhD and create a business. I say this not to sound conceited but because I want you to know that I felt like I was successful. I was, in fact, becoming a better version of myself. I just wasn’t there yet.

Then it happened. You know the saying: “hindsight is 20/20?" Right before I walked for my Doctorates, the day prior to me graduating SOS, and just only 2 weeks shy of visiting my mother, I received a phone call from my sister that immediately changed my life. My mom died unexpectedly. 55 years old, fell asleep, never woke up. To this day, we are still unsure of what exactly happened. This was the woman who was my rock, my biggest fan, one that I called each day, ripped from my life. This was the moment that changed my life. But how?

That moment, and the moments thereafter, gave me permission to no longer allow anyone to tell me what success looks like. I defined my own. Through my mother’s death, I realized that presence over perfection was my goal, to open my heart to love hard and be vulnerable. I now see challenges as opportunities and life as a game. Because it’s not that serious. Life is way too short (sounds cliché, but unfortunately, I, and many of us, have already experienced this). I am not what happened to me but what I choose to become. That better version that I was striving for so many years now originated on my own terms and I was finally becoming that version.

So, what does the future hold for this old retired officer? I am growing my own leadership consulting business, I just finished a children’s book, and working for an amazing organization that focuses on self-awareness. But…that is not 100% success in my book. My success derives from being the wife I should be, the mother that my mom would be proud of, and being present over perfect. I am living life with my own standards and defining my own success. Because it is MY success. What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives hasn’t even happened yet!

I would like to share a poem from Erin Hanson that sums this all up:

From the second that you’re in this world,

They tell you what is “fair”,

The questions you’re allowed to ask,

And the ones you wouldn’t dare,

Placed on the path they’ve paved for you

Life pushes you along,

Without the chance to stop and think,

If it’s right where you belong,

But beyond your pathway’s edges,

Is where living really starts,

A land of risks and danger,

And a land of broken hearts,

They’ll tell you - you should fear this land,

That there’s no good there at all,

As they live their lives as they’ve been taught,

Behind expectation’s wall,

But the best people you will ever meet,

Have wandered off their track,

Found themselves along the way,

And have no need to wander back,

So, forget about life’s road map,

Follow your heart at any cost,

For you’ll never truly find yourself,

If you’re too scared to get lost.

So how do I culminate a career and what legacy do I leave?

My legacy is in my Air Force which is no longer mine … I pass on my Air Force to those great Airman who follow. To you who are capable and prepared to grow the Air Force and what it means to be an Airman. To be present, vulnerable – to lead with emotion but don’t make decisions based off emotions.

I am humbled to have had the opportunity to serve and I have the greatest respect for what you do and how you represent our great nation. I thank each of you for what you have provided me.

I am a better version of myself because of you. I am successful.

Thank you!