In spite of our best efforts to the contrary much of life becomes a competition. We observe from a young age that winning not only sometimes brings us personal joy but often defines us as someone worthy of notice. We are cautioned to be individuals and to follow our own purposes and beliefs but somehow we find ourselves trapped in comparisons over and over again. We hear that learning is more important than grades but are then ranked in an insidiously rigid fashion. We strive to quietly live moral purpose driven lives but watch louts and bullies being lauded as great people for accumulating wealth. We hear that accomplishment should be measured by how well we manage to take responsibility for our own personal outcomes in life but equate it with money and power instead. So what is this thing that we call success and how do we measure it? Who attains it and who does not? Why do we draw comparisons for something that should be so personal?
A strict definition of success describes it as attainment of a goal, a eureka moment when we use our resources to achieve a desired outcome. From a developmental standpoint it should be founded on a personal aim that is attainable with a bit of effort. It’s not a simple idea to define with preconceived standards. For someone suffering from depression the mere act of getting out of bed, dressing and attempting to seize the day can be daunting. Making it from hour to hour without giving up takes sheer determination and yet we rarely credit anyone who engages regularly in such struggles with the badge of accomplishment.
To think that each of us is born with exactly the same set of abilities is absurd and yet we often act as though we are. Some children come to school with intellects so keen that they barely need to pay heed to their teachers while others are riddled with learning difficulties that make achieving benchmarks painfully hard. We heap praise on the naturally gifted and dismiss the child who plods along as being irritatingly slow. Even our universities that are filled with professors who should know better award coveted spots on their rosters to those who excel on one time tests rather than basing such decisions on traits like grit.
Within the small communities of our individual lives we laud the person who accumulates wealth or titles but rarely commend the person who chooses a path of quiet service. We don’t think to equate the torturous act of overcoming an addiction with success on a job, and yet the personas who free themselves from subservience to deadly habits are as courageous as war heroes. Our society honors the women who excel in the world of work but overlook those who devote their lives to the care of family and community. Was my grandmother who taught eight children how to be upstanding citizens any less than a woman who decide to run for President?
Defining success is a tangled web of contradictions and questions that are not easy to answer. In our hearts we know that it is never just about a one size fits all definition. There are many versions of achievement that cannot be measured by preconceived notions of what that means. My grandfather spoke broken English, had little more than a sixth or seventh grade education, and lived in what would be defined as poverty for all of his life and yet it would be unwise to view him as someone who accomplished little. Indeed in might be argued that he was a giant of a man, someone of amazing attainment.
Grandpa found a way to escape the demeaning oppression of his native Slovakia. He worked and saved to bring his bride to freedom as well. His children attested to his never ending work ethic, noting that he never once missed a day on the job at a meat packing plant in spite of pains in his legs that made standing all day long a torture. With a ridiculously low income he paid for and owned his home. He kept his family fed and safe during the Great Depression. He sent his children to school and taught them to be loyal and productive individuals. Most of his neighbors viewed him as little more an outsider who spoke with broken English and struggled to keep his family afloat.
I see him as the successful man that he was. With no financial help from anyone he carved out a life for himself and his family in a land that was not always kind to him. He went to his job each and every day without complaint and worked hard while he was there. His children were sheltered from rain and cold each night and went to bed with food in their bellies. He raised them to love God and country and to be honest and productive. There is little more honorable and outstanding that any man might do. He was a great success.
My grandparents’ children became successful in their own right. Their children raised the bar even more and their children continue to push themselves to reach goals in athletics, science, mathematics, engineering, medicine, education and business. They have overcome handicaps and realized dreams that began with a man who was unnoticed by the world in which he lived. Such is the stuff of true success and reaching it is not a matter of some artificial measure, but the reality of day by day determination until each personal best is achieved.