Success is defined in the dictionary as the completion of a task or assignment. On the face of it the word has a very direct and easily measured meaning, but over time we have attributed many different and personal ideas to the nature of what serves as the definitive explanation of success. More often than not, we rarely think of the achievement of ordinary goals as constituting anything worthy of being considered a success. Instead we tend to attribute a great deal more splendor to the concept, and we save it for descriptions of grand deeds or tremendous financial gains. In our minds the successful person is more often the one who wins the race, rather than those who merely participated and made it to the finish line. I suspect that in our adoration of those who reach heights that are less attainable to the vast majority, we have often overlooked and undervalued the day to day efforts of an army of nameless and faceless people who keep our world functioning.
Our competitive natures are such that we have a tendency to rank individuals as winners and losers. Someone who manages to earn vast amounts of money is sometimes viewed with more reverence than those who toil for little compensation. We suggest to our children that pursuing certain more profitable careers is somehow more laudable than doing something about which they are passionate. We are in awe of titles and degrees more so than dedication and altruism. We begin quite early to identify and reward children who learn more easily than their peers, making them appear to be a bit more worthy of our praise. By the time that our kids become adults they have been subliminally taught that survival of the fittest means scrambling for the top rather than taking care to reach a personal goal.
It is little wonder that our general focus on success as a contest to determine who ends up with the most medals, or marbles or toys or titles has so confused and even depressed our young. The quest for merit begins at younger and younger ages. Now we want our toddlers to begin the rudiments of reading. There are toys that teach them pre-Algebra skills. We enroll them in music lessons and sports and get them accustomed to competing for positions on teams. We continually send the message that their interests and efforts should be aimed toward end goals that will supply them with prestige and wealth. Rarely would any of us consider counseling our children to rejoice in the pursuit of dreams that are ordinary. We want them aiming for the stars, which means that if one of them wants to work on a job that seems homely and ordinary we will discourage them from pursuing it. All too often we make our youth feel as though they are failures simply because they choose different paths than the ones that we desire for them.
I spent a weekend with my nephew and his family and marveled at the evidence of his quite obvious success. He and his wife came from humble backgrounds and through study and hard work have achieved even beyond their own dreams. Both of them are devoted doctors who are considered among the best in their respective fields. Their efforts have brought them both tangible and personal rewards. They enjoy the fruits of their labors and share them generously. They have managed to raise their children to be as unspoiled as they are. Virtually anyone who might meet them would readily assign the label of success and admiration to them, as it most assuredly should be, but the true extent of their achievements lies not so much in their collection of the trappings, but in the content of their character. They are truly successful because they chose to follow their own personal passions, and did so by pushing themselves to have a purpose in all that they have done.
There is a great deal of talk these days regarding who makes the best kind of leader for our country. We’ve tried scholars such as Woodrow Wilson and engineers like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. We’ve had lawyers in the embodiment of Abraham Lincoln and Barrack Obama. We’ve tried businessmen, farmers, military generals, and even actors. It was not so much those who had scaled the heights of their respective professions who proved to be the greatest among our presidents, but individuals who brought both intellect and honor to the job. The best among them somehow understood that success was defined not by praise for themselves but wins for the people for whom they worked. So it should be for each of us who choose how we desire to live our lives. It is in focusing on the greater good that we find the sense of accomplishment that we desire, rather than in the awards that we receive.
I’ve often counseled my students to find what interests them, and then apply dedication and imagination to doing the necessary tasks of their lines of work with great love. Digging a draianage ditch to the most exacting specifications is as noble as inventing a cure for cancer. When the rains come and that hole in the ground does its intended job of preventing floods, something quite grand has been accomplished. Think of how glorious our world would be if each individual so valued his/her contribution to society that all efforts were done with great care. That is the true definition of success, and the one that we should be teaching our children.
I also have a relative who is a minister. He earns very little money and has few worldly goods, but he is as devoted to his work as the good doctors that I described earlier. He believes in the importance of his vocation and he gives his all to being a guiding light and source of comfort to his congregation. I am in awe of him because I know that he has sacrificed greatly to follow his calling. He has done so with a heart so big that he is touching the very souls of his flock.
I suspect that much of the angst that we are imposing on our children might be alleviated if we were to stress the importance of doing whatever we choose with great pride. In turn those of us watching young people make their way into life must always value their choices and provide them with the encouragement that they need. We seriously have to take care not to send messages that make them feel that what they are doing is somehow less worthy than what others do.
As an educator I have longed to find a way to develop each human at his or her own pace and without all of the numerical data that attempts to squeeze individuals into one size fits all definitions of success and failure. I love the idea that life is a continuum connected by an infinite number of points through which we flow as we accomplish tasks in a manner that takes our unique talents and difficulties into consideration. Whenever we do something well it feels glorious and serves to encourage us to keep moving forward. Sadly we all to often look up to notice that the rest of the society is focused mostly on those whose efforts appear to be more significant than our own. We become discouraged and question ourselves. We feel undervalued and lose focus.
I have seen success on a grand level and in the smallest of ways. It is something to always celebrate. I am that child who wowed my teachers academically but who frustrated them athletically. When I finally learned how to connect a baseball bat with a ball and send that orb flying over an open field I felt as accomplished as I did when I earned a college degree. Because I had teachers, mentors and guides to encourage me no matter how many failures I endured I felt the surge of success in my heart and it was so good. My hope as I travel through the twilight years of my life is that somehow I might send the message to our youth and the people who are guiding them that success is exactly as the definition describes, the completion of a task. There are no parameters of time. There are no rankings of the value of the work. Success implies a willingness to get back up even after failure to get a job done. When the ending produces something accomplished with great care, it is indeed a beautiful thing, and we all need to learn how to celebrate success as it was meant to be.