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.
Comedian Pete Holmes has a bit in which he says if you lower your standards for success, you feel better about yourself. Rather than beating yourself up for not getting ahead in your career or making enough money to buy that fancy car you have your eye on, achieve small goals. He uses the example of going to dinner in a new friend’s house and finding the silverware drawer on the first try. Yeah! You can be proud that you know the American way of housekeeping so well.
This approach makes a lot of sense. Yesterday, I cleaned half a bathroom. Today already I’ve flossed and brushed my teeth well before I had to run out the door. Success! My to-do list may be hundreds of items long, and I know from experience I can’t possibly complete ten percent today. But I can delight in my immediate accomplishments.
Sometimes it seems we aim our sights so high that we set ourselves up for failure. Following close on the heels of failure are self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity. Then we don’t like ourselves much. We often go through the same exercise for our partners and children, too, making them miserable in the process as well as ourselves.
I remember in high school and college every person was going to achieve some momentous feat. One was going to be a surgeon; another, president of the US. Several planned to take over the world of finance and become billionaires at the same time. Too numerous to count were the best-selling authors, the world-famous performers, the wildly innovative artists sure to arise. My personal (unachieved) goal was to lose 40 pounds before I ever returned for a high school reunion.
How much more fulfilling if my aims are simply to reduce the stack of bedside reading by a magazine or two, water my houseplants before they die, write a decent paragraph each day. The ineluctable* reality—if good enough is enough, I just may enjoy my life more.
*Ineluctable: inescapable, inevitable, unavoidable