Success is an elusive concept that means different
things to different people. Some measure it by material gains. Others think it’s about being recognized and sought after. Some people feel successful when they’re learning new things and engaging in life as it is. Others think it’s about attaining elevated social positions. For some, it’s about winning the race. For others, it’s about joining the race and making it to the finish line.
I used to measure success in terms of productivity and accomplishment. How much could I get done in a day? How much attention was I getting from the people around me? How could I write better, more and faster? But my definition has changed over the years. Today, getting to the computer is a form of winning for me. So is writing for three or four hours in a row. Or finding my authentic voice that makes my story come alive.
When I meet a deadline, I feel successful. When I write every day whether or not I’m inspired, I feel successful. When I push my
limits to create something from nothing, a la the Grimm Brother’s fairy tale character, Rumplestiltskin, who spun straw into gold, I feel successful. I even feel accomplished when I carve out downtime to relax, regenerate and hang out with friends.
I feel pretty good right now because I’m writing this prompt. It took three tries: write, delete, write, delete, write, delete, before I zeroed in on this topic. When I write a prompt, I think about my students listening to me read it. If I imagine them engaged and interested, I
feel like I chose the right topic, but it isn’t always that cut and dried. I
led a writing workshop recently that I consider 50% successful. I had twenty participants and during the first half when I was talking about writing, I saw that people were distracted and had a far away look in their eyes. But in the second half, when I encouraged them to talk with me and ask questions, they had their full attention on the discussion. I learned from that. I keep in mind that just like light cannot exist without darkness, success cannot exist without failure. The mere fact that I put the workshop together, announced it and showed up felt like an act of courage. The next time, I’ll implement some changes I hope I’ll feel completely satisfied.
In this life, our idea about what makes us feel accomplished and happy keeps changing. It doesn’t have to be about winning a race or writing a bestseller. It can be about the little things – going grocery
shopping for someone who is housebound, finding compassion when you feel resentful, and writing for a prescribed period of time. Whatever you do, if you don’t feel good about it, if you don’t see it as a kind of grace, no matter how much money you make or how famous you become, you’ll always be dissatisfied and striving for more.
I’ve written memoirs for some legendary celebrities and at first, I was in awe, envious of these people and their sparkly lives. But pretty soon, I came to understand that they weren’t necessarily fulfilled. I saw firsthand, that privileges like bottomless bank accounts, Chanel, Versace and Tiffany, Rolls Royces and private planes made for an
exciting life but it didn’t ensure a good one. Often enough, those attainments were counter-productive to a person’s peace of mind because they had to keep “stoking the star making machinery,” in the words of chanteuse, Joni Mitchell. The more they acquired, the faster the treadmill raced, and the harder it became to keep up.
A few years back, I was collaborating on a self-help book at the Malibu home of a motivational speaker. This wealthy woman in her mid-thirties could barely sit still for the two hours we worked together each week. In fact, she gave new meaning to the old expression, “ants in her pants.” Late one afternoon when the sun was setting in its pastel glory over the Pacific Ocean, she paced back and forth and asked me breathlessly, “What do you see in your future? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you really want?”
I watched the gulls soar and swoop in front of the plate glass windows of this woman’s sumptuous beach estate. I had traveled across the globe with the ballet in my youth, my literary career was on a good track, I liked what I was doing for a living, I had a home that I loved, I had great friends, a precious cat, and I preferred foods that were fresh and organic.
“Peace,” I said. “I want peace.”
“Is that all?” she asked me, clearly disappointed by my answer. “Don’t you want to be successful?”
I smiled. I knew where she was coming from. I’d been there too, not so long ago. I want to make it clear here that I’m not knocking fame or wealth. It’s good to follow your dreams, make lots of money and work toward something that you want. It’s good to be lauded for your
accomplishments, but enjoying the steps along the way is the most important part. So is keeping a positive attitude when you fail. As you get closer to what you want, when you glimpse the rewards that seem to be right around the corner, you have to be ready for a challenging dance with failure, the opposite of the success for which you’re striving.
I love this quote from Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of
intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of
honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to
find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit
better, by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know that one person has
breathed easier because you have lived.
This is success.