Time to Challenge a Major American Delusion

In this country, we believe anyone can achieve whatever he wants. This idea is drummed into kids at every step. Interviews with people deemed successful spotlight this point of view. Whether you’re an athlete, an actor, businessperson, or a rancher, we tell ourselves this over and over. Anyone can become president. You can be successful in any career you choose.

NOT TRUE! And maybe it’s time to stop spouting this. What happens instead is those 99.99% of us who don’t rank number 1 in our goal or field of interest get discouraged, depressed, even suicidal.

Why not? Because of the three qualities essential to achievement, we have no control over two of them. Those two are:

  1. In-born, genetically determined talent. This can be for singing, art, intelligence, creativity, the correct body type, beauty, whatever. I happen to be extremely short and always have been. No matter how much I might want to be a star basketball player, my less-than-five-feet height never will permit it.

  2. Chance, luck, fortune. A caveman could never be a millionaire because he lived in a time that lacked money and big business. Even if you’re born into the right age, country and family, you still might never chance upon a situation that enables you to succeed in the way you hope. You might miss the exact connection, the right friend, the ideal situation to lead you up your chosen ladder.

The last essential quality an individual does have some control over: hard work.

What do people define as “success.” Articles and surveys report that many younger (and older!) people believe success is money, possessions, social media attention, position, fame. Many of us share these goals and dreams,

Let’s get serious. Hard work plays a big role in success. But it’s not the sole determiner. Time magazine in 2019 had an essay on parenting that urged adults to tell kids the truth—hard work doesn’t always pay off. (July 1, 2019; by Rachel Simmons) Why should we bother? Won’t this reality discourage the young?

No, not if we recognize that there are other things in life that make us successful. Friends, family, satisfaction with our achievements, passion for some activity, even simple acceptance of and joy in life around us. We’d probably have many more happy people and far fewer discontented, even suicidal ones.

Every Table has a Story; But I Still Do Not Owe You an Autobiography

end_table_5_800(With this piece, I’m starting a series of guest blogs featuring other individuals’ extraordinary lives, stories and thoughts. Comments welcome.) 

My mother found a small table in the street. Someone had discarded it and she carried it home. Her friend the furniture store owner refinished it for her. She carried an end table across the alley from a friend’s house. One of the tripod feet caught on the gate and broke off. My father, exasperated each time that she brought something home, felt the need to bring its mate home for her. Again, her friend the furniture store owner had it refinished for her. Her incomplete sets of china with their beautiful cup and saucer or delicate serving platter also have their own stories to tell.

When I took my friend Kathy on a tour of my new home, before these pieces were able to find a more fitting place, she was mesmerized by the provenance of my home furnishings. Somehow, their histories added to their decorative beauty and value.

As I pondered on the intrigue that these stories held for Kathy, I began to think about the private tales each person has to tell. We all know that person who seems to have it all – beauty, brains, career, money, respect. We think that he or she never “suffered” in order to attain success. How many times does a celebrity make a public outcry that people do not know what he went through to achieve success?

For that matter, how many times does each of us make the same outcry? We do not have to be a celebrity to have people in our lives who do not know – or, acknowledge – our histories. There is the friend who tells you that you are so lucky to live in that house. There is the employer who tells you that you have not suffered enough for your job.

In order to get them to “shut up” we feel pressured to reveal every setback which we faced. The response to this revelation? Varied yet mechanical. There is the “thank you for sharing” response; or, the “stop feeling sorry for yourself” response; or, the “I don’t believe you” response. We are neither sharing nor feeling sorry for ourselves. More importantly, we have failed to establish a rapport or any understanding.

Unlike a table that cannot reveal its stories one by one to the other tables, as humans with brains and souls, we should have the opportunity to reveal our stories to other people – slowly and comfortably. Then, we are truly sharing.

Each of us has wonderful stories to tell, stories which can be woven into an extraordinary autobiography. Just do not ask me to hand it to you in one encounter.

Written by Carolina L., pseudonym, an attorney in Denver, Colorado. Carolina is originally from The Bronx, New York which is fertile ground for many stories.

Have we been fooling ourselves all these years? Failure may hold more meaning and value than success because we learn more from it.

failureWe 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.