How do we measure success?

My old friend, dead trees.
My old friend, dead trees.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about success and what that means. If we ask my old friend Miriam (Webster, that is), “success” is defined as a “favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.”

When I was a kid, the only way to look up a word I didn’t know was in the big, black dictionary with the gold-rimmed pages that still sits on the shelf next to the fireplace in my parents’ living room. It was a heavy book for my scrawny little arms. Still is. That heft lent the words it contained a certain gravitas, a certitude the internet just lacks. But I still love looking up words in the dictionary to solidify the meaning of something, to give myself a jumping-off point for an idea.

Success is that idea. I think we all have our own ideas of it, don’t we? We’re all chasing something. From the very first cries we make, we’re all striving. Endlessly, tirelessly striving. But for what? A favorable outcome. Wealth. Favor. Eminence.

In the Western World (the only one I’ve lived in, so the only frame of reference I really know) we are taught that success equals that second part of old Webby’s concept: wealth, favor or eminence. As soon as they can talk, we ask children what they want to be when they grow up. The answer is almost always a profession or a calling. A doctor. A firefighter. A dancer. And with that calling comes one of those two things: money or fame. These, we teach our youngest progeny, are success. These are worth striving for.

Then there’s favor. Praise, maybe. There are two common sounds on your average playground. Laughter and “look at me!” We crave attention, as human beings. One of our basest instincts is to get others to look at us, to smile at us, to praise us. We need validation to thrive. Gaining it is success. Have we done anything at all if no one notices? Even children on the playground would say no. We haven’t.

But what about that first part? What about a favorable or desired outcome? And what if, say, our favored or desired outcome isn’t wealth or fame or favor?

And that, my friends, is what I’ve been pondering: the possibility of success as defined not by wealth, eminence or favor, but by the simple, self-contained joy of having achieved a goal. Success for its own sake, perhaps.

A friend of mine wanted to start a business, not long ago. We talked about it at length: the pros and cons, risks and benefits, etc. We talked about the sacrifice of working long hours, giving up vacation time, days off, sleeping in. We talked about the financial risks of putting one’s entire life on the line and the possibility of losing everything if it failed. We talked about the fulfillment of a dream, about the satisfaction of producing a product, about the joy of creation.

And then, one evening, someone else brought up salary.

“I wouldn’t do it if it would make less than my current job,” my friend said. “It wouldn’t be worth it.”

This caught me off guard. Never once, during weeks of conversation, had it occurred to me that a person might consider the business successful only if it garnered a better wage. And that got me thinking.

I had assumed my friend wanted to start a business for the pleasure of creating something, the satisfaction of ownership or any number of intangible “feel-good” reasons that would live in his head and his heart, instead of his pocketbook. It hadn’t occurred to me, until after that conversation, that most people don’t measure success by the way it makes them feel, as much as the way it makes them look.

So I wonder about what those external markers of success mean for us, as people. If we base whether or not we are successful on whether our endeavors bring us fame and fortune, aren’t we shortchanging ourselves of the simple pleasure of self-fulfillment? As someone said to me today, “If you give others the ability to assign your self-worth, you also give them the power to take it away.”

I want to write because it makes me feel good. I like to share what I love with the world because I think art makes our planet a little more bearable to be in. I want to consider creation, in and of itself, a marker of success. Whether or not it sells. Whether or not a check is cut, at the end of the day. Whether five people read it or five hundred. I want to be able to consider myself successful if I am creating, if I am producing, if I am living the way that makes me believe, in and of myself, that I have reached the outcome I desire.

And I don’t want that outcome to be wealth or eminence. I just want it to be.


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