Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have closed—some permanently—and others worry how to survive when (and if) they are permitted to reopen. Across the country, too many people are now unemployed, concerned not only about paying bills but also wondering where they will find new jobs. In this moment of frightening uncertainty, many people question the future of work. Do they ask themselves what it means to succeed and live successfully?
image: Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial Washington DC, J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
image: Krzysztof Wodiczko, (5th Avenue, New York 1988) (with Trump Tower), courtesy of Museum of Art in Lodz
Years ago, I wrote an essay questioning what it means to leave a legacy. Now—a little older, maybe a little wiser—I find myself asking, how do we measure success? Coming from a middle-class family of hardworking professional people, I have often been motivated and burdened by the family legacy that one must work hard every day to prove one’s worth in society. In my mind, this translated as “busy for busyness’s sake.” I grew up being told that having a strong work ethic was more important than creativity and inspiration; and, perseverance in the face of rejection and failure were the keys to success.
My parents’ attitude about life could be summed up in radio legend Garrison Keillor’s motto: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch”—with an emphasis on the “do good work.” I always seemed to hear another phrase: “all work and no play.” For better or worse, the rebel that I was would too often choose a life with a lot of play and decidedly less work.
When I chose to call myself a writer, I hadn’t yet come to realize there were lofty barometers by which others would judge my success. When I contributed pieces of writing to the Huffington Post (uncompensated), my sister asked me, “How does this define your success?”—an implied assertion that a paycheck could in fact validate my success. At the time, for me, just seeing my words published, anywhere, available for others to read, was an absolute success! Did my sister have a point; is monetary compensation an essential gauge of success?
When I was admitted to a respected writer’s workshop, I was thrilled to be included—only for my accomplishment to be deflated by the other writers asking me where I have been published. I learned that within the writing community where you’ve been published is the measure of one’s success. For me, just gaining the opportunity to learn and develop my writing skills felt like an accomplishment. Is receiving validation from others another measure of success? To be honest, it’s not easy to ignore outside receptivity to one’s work. When I listen to what others say about my work, I freeze. There is nothing I can do to satisfy everyone’s idea of who I should be or what I should do. Yet, when I determine my own definition—knowing my own achievements as well as seeing my own faults—then I can open to others’ views. I can incorporate their words and intentions as beneficial to my version of success. Or not.
I write infrequently. This is likely due to the many diversions and distractions I allow to take me away from my desk. Not long ago, I ran into one of my literature professors. She was on a walk with her children on the Lands End Trail, and I was out for a jog. She asked how my writing was coming along, and I replied, that it wasn’t. It had been nearly a year since I had sat down to write anything beyond journaling. “You are a talented writer if you give it time and focus,” she said. “Remember that.” Her instruction echoed my triathlete coach who had said the same thing to me about my training “If only you committed and focused, you would consistently place in your races.”
We make choices in life. Is success one of those choices?
To expand this question beyond my personal frame, consider this thought experiment: You set out on a goal to summit a mountain—any mountain; and, then along the way you take a turn on a path to visit a mountain village. Your stay there will delay your reaching the summit, yet you may gain something more from your time spent with the village people. You set off on the trail again, and along your journey to reach the top, you come across another detour leading to a pristine lake, and there you discover a rare botanical. Just think, if you had not ventured off the path of reaching your goal, then you may have missed those other enriching experiences and discoveries. So, is success measured by staying on the path and reaching the summit, or is it embodied in whatever you experienced and discovered along the way? I have heard one friend define her successful career, not as one success, but as a culmination of many small successes throughout her years.
image: Ed Ruscha, The Mountain, 1998
image: Nina Katchadourian, Lemon Arch, 2015. From her ongoing Seat Assignment Project, since 2010
Perhaps I shun success. I have heard that people who do so are actually afraid of failure. This, I believe, may be true. Some say that success is achieved by setting your goals high enough so they challenge you to obtain them. When I have failed, I’ve heard my inner voice defend my ego by claiming that I was only dabbling, I did not give it a lot of effort, or I did not commit wholeheartedly. These defenses are true, too. Yet, in actuality, they reveal a weakness—a coward’s approach to facing the true grit of giving one’s all and then accepting the outcome, whether success or failure with equanimity. I can see in my own life that goals, choices, and effort are all elements contributing to a dynamic of success.
Facing my lack of success—direction and productivity—at least in the realm of writing—I revealed to a friend that I was feeling (using Covid-inflicted lingo) like a “nonessential” human being and that I have a life’s purpose without a plan–a light-hearted manner of admitting that I have no idea what my purpose is.
I do believe that my life’s purpose is being available for those that I love. I have often heard that when people come to the end of their life, it is their relationships that matter most to them. I find joy in giving others joy. I find happiness in spreading happiness. I believe in being present to give hugs and to listen to a friend, a child, or even a stranger with kindness—is not this living successfully?
Yet, I still wonder, how do my daily activities contribute to my success? Having the ability to create, even without an audience, and to live a contented life doing what I like best—writing, reading, traveling, being in nature, and spending time with those I love—to me feels like I am living successfully. Even so, as I state this, I fully realize the privilege and luxury of these circumstances, which can be viewed in themselves by some, as “success.”. In defining and measuring success, our views shift from the immaterial to the material and back again.
image: Stefan Hoza, Untitled, 2019
Social media lures and enamors us to measure success through power, popularity, money, recognition, mansions, cars, yachts, and other lavish luxuries. (Then again, I blame everything gone awry on social media!) If success becomes measured by possessions and “likes,” that leads me to wonder, just what is the relationship between one’s popularity and one’s integrity (Hmm, maybe I’ll save that for another essay.) It’s as if we believe that our qualities are greater—have worth or any value at all—only when others see them. Even though it’s natural for us to see what others have accomplished or acquired as measures for ourselves, this impulse will never lead to a sense of pride in our own personal accomplishments and contributions to the world.
images:Rashaad Newsome, Bo-Ed-Up and What’s Beef, both 2014
Of course, there are fierce economic pressures in society. You are told that if you don’t work hard and apply yourself with focus and commitment, you won’t master the skills to succeed. For many, that means, if you don’t do well in your early schooling, you won’t get accepted into a ‘good’ college and attain the education, certification, and connections that will lead to a job or career. And then, if you don’t embellish your achievements as a super-star-can-do and have-done dynamo on your rèsumè, you won’t get the job interview that will lead to getting the “right” job. For too many, especially today, the “right” job is any job, which provides for health care, savings, or even money for food and rent, let alone luxuries. If you don’t play by these rules, especially in a society that offers no safety net for its citizens, then your choices are to either live off the grid or on the street.
image: Skylar Fein, Success, 2015
image:Kerri Scharlin, Storyboard panel from “Kerri ala Beavis and Butt-head” by Kristofor Brown
image: Christian Marclay, Tampa, 2007
At one time, people who did well in life by material standards were considered fortunate, and those with less were considered unfortunate, regardless of any intervening circumstances or inherited wealth. Even today with all the global health and economic disruptions, we measure in more derogatory terms of “winners and losers,” as if anyone’s circumstances were entirely within their control. Given this context, having the option to live an ordinary good enough life with contented mediocrity and a quietness that allows for contemplation—is most certainly fortunate.
But, I still wonder if I come to solve what makes for success?
Every publication that has rejected my musings has said to me, “Great thoughts, but so what? What advice can you offer to our readers?” Ironically, I now believe that I, a person without measurable success, have in taking life’s detours, grown into someone with something to offer the reader on the quest towards a life of success. First, I believe in the many prophetic voices who have said that success is to be found in internal characteristics such as—kindness, courage, happiness, intelligence, and compassion—that contribute to good relationships. I also understand success in terms of the goals that you commit time, energy, effort, focus, and passion to achieving. Success is also the external pursuits, showing up for work—for a job—and when you responsibly attend to your job, you invest yourself in your effort, doing any task well and with integrity, even if that is only a means to achieving other things. This, too, is success. Hopefully, then your job will offer a feeling of joy for what you accomplish day-to-day. My parents’ motto (inspired by Prairie Home Companion) is, at last, beginning to resonate.
image: Musho Rodney Alan Greenblat, Study Your Self, 2011
I believe that success—for any individual—is the act of living in congruence: with society, with humanity, with nature, in the world and even in the cosmos (if you let your lens widen beyond today’s more immediate pressures). If we all lived in congruence, may we agree that for a society to be successful everyone should prosper. For if one achieves success at the cost of others—with fellow citizens failing, compromised, oppressed—then how can one’s endeavors be measured as successful? Success composed only of personal gain, self-interest and unmoored from the common good is, in my opinion, a failure of social and moral responsibility. What if we all viewed success and living successfully as Charles Eisenstein envisions—a commitment to imagine the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible?
image: Glenn Ligon, Give us a Poem, 2007
In our hearts, in our experience, we know the answer. So why do we forget and become lured by power, prestige, and the “bling” that money can buy? There may be no single answer to “what is success?” It vacillates and evolves with each generation, propelling the multitude of articles and books written on the subject of success. Likewise, I know I cannot answer this question for YOU. Your definition of success will come from within yourself. It is your own mountain journeys and detours. Ultimately it is one’s own personal and private definition of success that matters. In listening to yourself and understanding what holds value, you will discover a meaningful definition. This personal discovery will serve as a resounding affirmation that gives meaning to life. For me, with a writer’s love for words, with a love of nature, and a spiritual life, success is found in following a simple credo: to live a life of well-being for the well-being of all beings. Ahimsa.
And, because I am always inspired and guided by Henry David Thoreau and his wise words, here are some from Walden: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success.”
image: The author in the Nepalese Himalayas
image: Above Machu Picchu