Some coworkers and I were having an interesting conversation at lunch, over fried fish and hush puppies and assorted sundries at Mike Linning’s. The question on the table was “What defines success for you? What event means you’ve arrived?”
I’d like to retract my answer, and give the one that was on the tip of my tongue but that felt too sentimental to say to a bunch of ambitious career folks.
What I said, was that I felt like I’d be there in the next week, when my author copies of Once Upon a Clockwork Tale arrive, and I have a book in my hand with my name on it. Another person said they didn’t think they’d ever be satisfied. That whenever they achieve whatever that goal is for them, they set a new goal. Which made me really sad for them, and also made me wish I’d given my real answer, even though without a lot of explanation, it would have sounded hopelessly arrogant.
I’m already there. I’m there, my flag is planted. And it wasn’t getting accepted for publication, or somehow stumbling into an awesome career, or having kids or buying a house or any of that.
I’m happy. No, more accurately, I’m content.
There was a big chunk of my life where I was never satisfied. If I somehow managed to accidentally trip and land in a puddle of happy, I was pretty quick to flee it. I was a master of self-sabotage. I was a ninja at second-guessing good things that came my way. I don’t really do that any more. And it wasn’t a moment, it was an evolution. A gradual molting and renewal. Something like (dare I say it?) growing up.
Our culture idolizes adolescence and doesn’t have much use for grown ups anymore. But one of the less-fun aspects of adolescence is that constant dissatisfaction that gnaws at you. You’re an unfinished creature, and I think if you didn’t feel that grumbling, you’d just stay stuck there, unfinished. Or you’d calcify into a caricature of a person. The constant discomfort with where you are is because you’re in a state of becoming–it’s meant to push you out of the nest to find your own place in the world. It’s not meant to be the war drum you hear in your head your entire life that beats you relentlessly towards an early grave.
I don’t mean to imply that my life is static in any way, or that I don’t have goals. I do. But I’m not waiting till I reach them to declare my life meaningful or successful. I survived my adolescence and my rocky youth. I did not self-destruct as predicted by many (and fervently desired by the one person who explicitly told me I should kill myself).
I win. Game over.
I’m not running madly towards some gold star, some ineffable brass ring, some numinous badge of honor from the world that will declare me a Winner at Life and make Everything Worth It™.
Many things are not worth it, in the end, but you usually only find that out in hindsight. When I get to the end of my race, a “well done, good and faithful servant” would be exceptional.
All I really want is a warm “Welcome home, kid.”