We usually define “success” as achieving some sort of goal. A sports team wins a competition. A job search results in an offer from the company of our choice. A contest awards a prize. And life in general, we gain more money or a bigger house or greater fame than others.
I’m starting to realize that I’ve learned the most from projects that I initially labeled as “failures.” This perspective probably is grounded in the decades I’ve spent trying to get published. I wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. For about 30 years, I slowly but steadily published articles, nonfiction pieces in a variety of local and regional outlets, capped by a how-to book about recruiting and managing volunteers in libraries. Hardly the stuff of a Pulitzer or National Book Award. Since I always wanted to publish fiction, if I’d been asked about my writing success during those years, I would have rated myself as a failure.
At the same time I usually held down a full-time job in communications and public relations. It was during some stints writing applications for grants, then evaluating projects based on the final criteria, that I realized the expectation always was that we’d achieve every objective we’d listed in the original proposal. That defined “success.” This wasn’t always possible or even desirable. Surely if the people involved in the project learned about impacts, that was more important that claiming we’d met objectives. An example—if we hosted an art workshop for kids, and our objective was for each child to create three clay pots, surely it was more important that we leaned those children preferred paints to clay than that every child made his allotted number.
Evaluations with goals and objectives also are common in work plans. In fact as a government employee, I became accustomed to dreaming up annual evaluation methods, which usually changed according to agency fiat every few years, ungrounded in any kind of reality. And again, I seemed to learn more from ostensible “failures” than successes.
This same approach can be applied to raising children. Before mine were well launched into adolescence, I agreed with the theory that good parenting showed up in children who never got in trouble and did well in school. My eyes were opened to the independence of a young human when one of mine always had to learn the hard way. If my sole criterion had been my original standards, I would have written off the parent-child relationship as irretrievably broken. Fortunately I held on and realized both of us had learned and grown through the ill-defined “failure.”
Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s no success like failure. . .failure’s no success at all.” I’m inclined nowadays to apply this Zen-like approach. Arbitrary standards for success may be applied by others, but as the person on my own voyage through life, I’m trying to enjoy and learn from the process, not the result. Perhaps others can benefit from this perspective, too.
Through chance, not planning, I have the great fortune right now of being able to escape an eight-to-five job. With this flexibility, I’ve turned to writing fiction, which always has been my goal. But the strangest thing happened. The freer my time and more open my schedule, the less motivated and more depressed I became. It got to the point I couldn’t answer the simple question “how are you?” and I avoided talking to friends and family. No project seemed important enough to complete. I dreamed up excuses to slump in a chair reading or click through television stations searching for something, anything, to fill my time.
What was wrong? Was my iron low? Supplements didn’t help. Did I have an undiagnosed mental malady? I still cracked jokes left and right when I found myself in a group. Was I just getting old and experiencing a decline? I knew plenty of people my age and older who were still going strong.
The answer, or at least an answer finally came to me at a meeting. Every woman who spoke seemed to be traveling or working on an exciting project or changing the world for the better. I was envious of every single person there. This didn’t make sense, I thought. I’d never felt this way before.
That’s because I’d previously always been super-busy. Held down a full-time job, wrote in my spare time, volunteered with several groups, went places with my husband, saw friends regularly. But since my self-imposed isolation, I mostly had contact just with myself.
No one, not even an independently wealthy super-introvert (which I’m not), can survive with no external stimulation. We’re human beings, and we need interaction with others. We require the give-and-take, the ebb-and-flow of life around us, or else we stagnate. That’s what was happening. I was stagnating. As Bob Dylan wrote years ago, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
With that realization, I’ve begun reconnecting with old acquaintances, attending an occasional event I usually avoid, becoming involved with a group whose work I support. I no longer forget what day it is because my calendar has a variety of engagements for me to keep. And they’re not all dental or doctor appointments.
Jealousy is supposed to be a green-eyed monster. But in my case, envy sparked a major improvement in my life I might not have achieved otherwise.