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October 1999

Redefining Success

by Meg McGowan

Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want. — Margaret Young

What do I know about success? Quite a lot actually, as I am myself successful. . .or am I? About a year ago I ran into a woman I’d known in college. Julie was familiar with my writing and was happy to see me again. She looked at my life, words on the page balanced by roots in the garden, and told me that she admired me. I was an inspiration to her, someone who had made it. . .a success. It occurred to me several days later, as I was still basking in the glow, that I had never experienced that sort of validation before. Most of my life choices do not fit me for a worldly definition of success. More typical is the condescending, patriarchal attitude expressed by a lawyer I once (unfortunately) hired to represent me. In response to his casual question, I told him that I had recently turned down a teaching job in favor of focusing on my writing and possibly going to graduate school. He looked straight at me and inquired, "When are you going to grow up and get a real job?"

I laughed — we were due in court within minutes. He repeated, "No, I’m serious. When are you going to grow up and get a real job?"

Who was right, Julie or the lawyer? Neither. If I based my life choices on what either Julie or my lawyer value rather than what I value, neither route would define success for me. Lives defined by the perceptions of others betray our selves.

This seems like a simple statement until we consider how much of our lives are dictated by the watchful eye of the world outside. How we dress, wear our hair, choose our cars, landscape our yards, raise our children, clean our houses, and feel about ourselves while we are doing it all may be influenced by standards we have absorbed rather than created. What we do for a living and do in our spare time, whether we are in a relationship, and who we get involved with are all affected by others. Not only do we live our lives in response to the judgments of others, we also internalize the rules and judge ourselves.

Anyone can become anything in the land of freedom, but that makes it easy to become just that — a nation of things rather than of people. We are defined by our objects (or, shudder, by our lack of objects). We buy things to become someone. We observe how those on the rung above us are living and we follow suit. As if we are trying to win a role in the life we want, we shop for the appropriate wardrobe, the soundtrack, the set, the props. Our image of ourselves as a nation of rugged individuals has supported not true individualism, but an ideology of personal gain. It is admirable to gather as much as you can for you and yours; it is success.

America’s identity as the land of opportunity has shaped the dreams of Americans for generations. If anyone in America can scramble to the top of the economic heap, if anyone can amass unimagined wealth, then, we have been convinced, we should grab our flag and start running, ready to stake our claim. Madison Avenue has cheered us on in a deafening roar of approval. Our cultural consciousness reveres what is new and improved, declares that what we are rushing toward is necessarily better than where we are now. Empty? Of course. And that emptiness fuels another rush — toward systems of behavior and belief that help us make sense of it all.

Our emerging interest in and identification with Indian rituals and ideals is not surprising as we search for a foundation which will support a shift in our values. The Indians inhabited this land before it was named the land of opportunity, before it was conquered and claimed for its wealth. Expanding our view of history has allowed us to reexamine our national identity, and the effects of that new identity enrich our individual lives.

Realization is slowly dawning that the traditional American dream does not support spiritual life, nor does it support actual physical life on the planet. Through reconnection to an earlier America we seek to align ourselves with a history that is life-sustaining. We are drawn to a way of life in which each day has meaning, in which moments are sacred, not sacrificed for money or prestige or appearances.

In order to begin really to live this life, we must know what our priorities and values are. We must identify and claim what is sacred and inviolate in our lives. Is it Sunday dinner, having time to meditate, raising children, arriving home before dark? A balanced life is possible only when personal priorities are clear, when we are not juggling edicts from others along with our own true desires.

For me, it is essential that the work I do must always stand on its own, be an end in itself. My work cannot be only a means by which to earn money or a step toward something else, though it may serve those functions as well. I want to be paid what I am worth as part of an equal energy exchange, but the work must be my focus, not the money. My work must also be an integral part of the flow of my life, not separate, not an obstacle to be waded through in order that I may reach evenings, weekends, paydays, vacations. I want to take my whole self to work each day, not a truncated or fictitious self.

From this has sprung my job criteria — idiosyncratic perhaps, but functional in identifying work I can truly live with. My job must work with, rather than against, the value I place on my family life. I should never need a résumé nor be required to wear makeup or uncomfortable clothes or shoes. There is no price at which I would offer all the moments of my life for sale, so pagers, cell phones and other means of being constantly on call are not for me. I want to be surrounded by natural light and air with an opportunity ‚ a sense of obligation, even — to be outside on beautiful days and to be integrally involved in the changes of light and season. My criteria may change, but they have provided me with work that has satisfied my soul and increased my daily capacity for joy.

To step outside of the world’s definition of success is to step into a void. It is like grappling with the unstructured time that looms when an all-consuming project has been completed, when a goal or a deadline has been finally reached. The tight focus that has comprised our view is suddenly pulled back to reveal a vast landscape of possibilities. The urge simply to fill the space is strong. How easy to allow someone else, a boss, a spouse, a baby, a parent, a church, a friend, an organization, a cause to dictate the next step.

Why would we allow this? Busyness, business, chaos, and the demands of others can be substitutes for meaning; they divert us from the difficult task of discovering meaning. We can reason that a life filled with action seems to have purpose, that if we have more demands than time, we must be important. And that if we are important, our lives must be meaningful. The greatest act of defiance against the activity-centered approach that threatens to consume our souls and our earth is to say, "I have enough," and "I am enough."

Question everything. Does this move my heart? Does this engage my passion? Does this support my beliefs and values about life and the world? And most importantly — why? Why am I doing this? Why must I have this? Why do I want this? Though your answers may change over the years, a life lived in line with your own vision cannot be regretted. It is the life that has been forfeited in service to someone else’s standards that is mourned.

If we allow material objects to be our measure of success or even an inevitable by-product of success, we are soon overrun with things. The same is true if success is defined by who we know, where we live or go, where we shop, or how we are seen. Life becomes crowded with obligations. Things we should do clutter our lives as surely as things we must have. And both consume our lives, not only in the moments spent in perceived obligation, but the portion of our life spent earning the money that is spent as well.

Henry David Thoreau, an expert at eschewing approval and things, wrote, "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." In order to see the form of our lives, the form of life itself, we must allow what is superfluous to fall away. We must observe the form like a tree in winter and then commence with pruning. Our lives, like the tree, will fill out again and again, lush and verdant. We must allow this cycle to move through our lives, to strip us down to essentials, to force our gaze upon stark form. Only in this way can we see clearly enough to choose the direction of our growth and begin again.

All this, is, of course, a call for a certain kind of simplicity. But beware: as a standing concept, simplicity itself becomes part of the problem. You can find yourself agonizing over how you want to live simply, or how simply you want to live. Do you want to raise goats, grow your own vegetables, make jam and can pears, or begin dusting only every other week? The value of the simplicity movement is in making room in your life to contemplate what is truly important to you, what gives your life meaning, what brings you joy, and in creating the space to live that life. Without that foundation simplicity becomes simply another to-do list, a compendium of shoulds, another set of criteria by which to measure yourself against an ideal. Raising goats may be the heart’s delight of your neighbor; the very thought may give you hives. Honor your hives.

Personal success cannot be defined in relation to others. Not by how our means compare to others, nor how our lives measure up to others’ expectations, nor even how they fit a philosophy or standardized ideal. We may strive to be good parents, teachers, role models, and citizens of the world, but the outcome of our efforts is not something we can control. We can control only our own intentions and actions — and remember the confounding fact that a desired outcome is not bestowed by the universe as a medal of success.

Yet, affirmation can be as vital as food for the soul. Thus, finding a community of like-minded friends can be invaluable to embracing your personal path. Artists, students, and religious sects throughout time have been supported by this dynamic as they work with a purpose other than material gain and social position. Since my life choices have been my own and Julie’s values happen to be close to mine, her assessment truly affirmed me. What misery my life would be if I were surrounded by clones of that lawyer!

Yet even here, balance is key. A community of individuals who support individual pursuits is different than a microcosm of society dictating an alternative agenda. Any agenda, alternative or not, suggests an outside standard of success and failure. And the concept of success suggests something that can be achieved and held. But nothing can be held. Everything that is embraced must eventually be released. A life lived well is ultimately measured not by the momentous occasions of that life, but by how those moments have been spent. Maybe you could call those choices success — if you must.

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