It’s hard to define success.
It means something different to each of us: for some, it might be money; for others, power; for still others, fame or status. It might mean love, or well-adjusted children, or a day-to-day joy that life’s trials can’t overcome. If you’re religious, it might mean salvation, or bringing others to salvation. If you’re an athlete, it might mean winning the world championship in your sport or a gold medal at the Olympics. If you’re a politician, it might mean being elected president.
But however you define it, it probably doesn’t mean sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. It probably doesn’t mean avoiding your work. It probably doesn’t mean sitting in a bar complaining to your friends about your lack of opportunity. It probably doesn’t mean watching TV for hours every night, or playing computer games, or aimlessly surfing the Internet. It doesn’t mean dragging others below your level to give you somebody to look down on.
I think most of us realize, after we reach a certain level of maturity, that success–however you define it–cannot be achieved without work. Most of us start in a valley, or on the side of a mountain, with success at the top. We know we have to work to achieve it. We know the climb will be difficult, and disorienting, and possibly dangerous.
Of course, knowing it will be difficult is something entirely different from experiencing the fatigue, the confusion, the fear that life can serve us. When we experience those, when we’re standing on the side of the mountain and can’t see the top, when we’ve come so far and worked so hard and given so much and it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to our goal than we were before, it’s tempting to give up. It’s tempting to say screw it and sit down in the bar and order a beer and start telling all our friends about the chances we missed, the breaks we didn’t get, the people who didn’t help us. And little by little, I couldn’t do it becomes nobody can do it.
Then somebody comes along and does it, climbs our mountain, achieves our definition of success, and we have a choice. We can let their success inspire us, ask how did they do that? and swallow our pride and congratulate them and follow their example and get back to work trudging up the mountain. Or we can stay on our bar stool and insist that we still can’t do it, that those who manage it–and there will be more, now that someone has done it–have something we don’t have, something that makes it useless to keep trying. Or we can blame them for their success, tell everybody they must have cheated, try to convince ourselves they should still be below us on the side of the mountain.
We can get back to work, keep trying for the success we want, or decide we want something different now and start working toward that. We can try, and fail, and try again, and work for what we want, and fall into bed exhausted every night because we have nothing left, and get up and do it again the next day. We can accept that there are no guarantees, that we might work like this all our lives and not get where we want to be. We can keep working, knowing we might fail. [Spoiler alert: that’s not the opposite of success.]
Or we can quit trying. We can give up. We can sit on our bar stools or our couches or our comfy chairs and talk about how hard we’ve worked, how much we deserve, how those people who succeeded must have done it by taking advantage of us, how they owe us something, how the government ought to guarantee our success, how electing the right president will fix it all for us. We can sink into despair, hating those who succeeded, hating those who keep trying, eventually hating ourselves. We can decide it’s hopeless, it’s not our job to succeed, it’s just our job to show up and do what we’re told and take advantage of everything we can get and work as little as we can. We can quit caring, let apathy replace hope.
Then we will have achieved the opposite of success.