Can we define our success, or does it take another?

Bird Droppings January 14, 202
Can we define our success, or does it take another?

Recently teachable moments have been rare as I have been very monastic between retirement and Covid and cautious. Yesterday while grocery shopping, I ran into a former student of sorts. She was in a class with me when I was a co-teacher, but she and her boyfriend spent most of their free time talking with me. She avoids social media, and we end up running into each other at Kroger. It has been over a year since our last run-in. She was not wearing a mask, so I fussed but mainly caught up. She is going to college finally after four boys and is taking a history class. Our discussion touched on politics, but she showed me a post she made in her history class as we talked. She referenced Mary Wolstencroft, an author most people outside literature have never heard of. She wrote when women were not supposed to be writing. Her daughter was Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. I could have kept on, but I was fifteen minutes late for a physical therapy session.

I love these moments, catching up, sharing, and learning. Last week on the spur of the moment, I drew upon my experiences and discussed arthropods. One of my favorites is the black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia, or writing spider. I then proceeded to offer a Creek Indian view of early morning. Few see this unless you go out early in the morning, and I will often go and sit watching the sunrise in the east. Looking carefully through the weeds and grass in the wee morning hours, you can see gossamer strands of spider silk touching everything. The Creeks will call this the web of life where all is connected, and as I told the story for my teachable moment, this person was silent listening. Today was a bit cold, even for spiders.

Yesterday, I left the house to run in for blood work with several critical calls to make, errands to run, and several feelings of people I needed to see and talk with. I found one almost immediately. As I traveled about, including going to my meeting late, seeing a former student was worth it. In my travels, I spoke with a retired Air Force electronics expert who had two years ago undertaken a vision quest with the Blackfeet tribe in the western US. I ran into several more former and present students, parents, and friends. I would consider it a success today, very much so. As I went through the day yesterday, I thought about being successful. Is there some magical way to tell if we are successful in what we do? I also did get quite a bit of writing completed.

Going deeper in thought, I would like to consider myself successful at what I do, and I think most people would want to feel this way. However, wanting to be successful has its basis in how you define success. It has been nearly twelve years since a fellow teacher handed me an article by Sydney J. Harris, a prolific writer and columnist from thirty-five years ago. Harris, at one time, was syndicated in over four hundred papers.

“You only have to be a little bit better than most in what you do. Just a little smarter, just a little steadier, just a little more energetic, or whatever another prime quality is demanded in your field. If successes admitted this, they would not have cause to feel so conceited; and if the aspirants recognized this, they would not have cause to feel so left behind at the starting line.” Sydney J. Harris

“Success is just a little more effort” from his column Strictly Speaking

As I read this passage, I realized how true it is. So often, one more step, another few words, and fifteen more minutes make the difference between success and failure or being just average. Sadly, in high school, getting seventy percent and passing is considered successful by far too many. Some do not succumb and try to attain better. It is not that difficult to be a little better than most, but we often see that as too much work or effort. This is not strictly limited to students’ teachers and falls into the taking the more manageable road syndrome. Suppose a teacher only chooses to do seventy percent of what is needed and works with seventy percent of students. That equates to about forty-nine percent of what should have been learned and is a failure in most societies. I often wonder what constitutes too much effort or work, and I am a procrastinator.

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” Pearl S. Buck

Being of a monastic nature, I find this to be difficult to include others. However, we need others to succeed and advance, if only to provide support. Succeeding is more often than not an effort of a group rather than just one person.

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many times, I have heard this quote at commencement speeches in lectures on success by motivational speakers, yet a little more of it sinks in each time. Perhaps Emerson was ahead of his time as I read his words in the last two lines; it becomes so significant that success has made another’s life easier, a compelling statement in our selfish society of excess and greed.

“It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed.” Harvey S. Firestone

Success is how we leave others as we walk away; the difference we make is the level at which we change the environment around us and, in some instances, our ability not to make a change and still accomplish something.

“My definition of success is total self-acceptance. We can obtain all the material possessions we desire quite easily; however, attempting to change our deepest thoughts and learn to love ourselves is a monumental challenge. We may achieve success in our business lives, but it never quite means as much if we do not feel good inside. Once we feel good about ourselves inside, we can genuinely lend ourselves to others.” Victor Frankl

Seeing ourselves honestly and learning to love ourselves is crucial to succeeding genuinely. Success is about us and how we affect the world and others. Success can be a minute difference in what is happening around us. Success can be a simple elevation of a friend or the attainment of a goal. Success is effort, yet success can be attained with the heart and the body.

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

As I was reading quotes and articles today to write this morning, it was interesting how success was defined by various people down through history. Many wealthy people explained success in wealth accumulation, yet others looked at the word as a gauge of human involvement. Numerous approaches and comparisons are available as I looked; accomplishment, outcome, and achievement were all listed as definitive words for success as I read.

As I think back to two of the quotes I used today, Dr. Schweitzer spoke of happiness as the key; this man was a musician extraordinaire he played in concert halls all over Europe and used those funds to run a hospital in Africa in the 1930s till his death many years later. His success in life was his practice of medicine where he was needed. Emerson, as he indicates, defines success as the difference you make in another’s life. As I look closer at myself, I truly believe success is a word needing others to determine. It is about your impact and difference on others, and success is not measured in volume as in quality. Suppose we take quality defined by Phillip Crosby, which exceeds expectations and draws a loose, simple parallel. Then success is exceeding others’ expectations. A week is drawing to an end and, as I have for many years now, ended my daily entries; please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your hearts and always give thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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