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What really surprised me was what she said next. "I guess I have pretty low expectations, and that has made me happy."
She said she's never had a "burning desire for fame," just the desire to be "comfortable," to wear what she likes, to drive a nice car, and to take "two five-star vacations a year." She's been nominated twice for Teacher of the Year, but hasn't won. She's happy to have been nominated and says she's glad her principal appreciates that she works twice as hard as everyone else to make sure she gets her job done right. "I've never thought of myself as the smartest person," my friend said. "I'm not ambitious. I don't read much. I like to watch TV. I'm no Susan Rice (a classmate of ours)." She said all this with the utmost acceptance.
Now I've always thought she underestimated herself. No, she's not an academic nor an intellectual, but she's bright, practical, and down-to-earth. I started to argue with her. But as I argued, I realized I was really arguing with myself for doing exactly what my friend does: assuming I'm on some totally different level from ambitious, successful people. This assumption upsets me and is probably why I spent so much of my early adulthood trying to prove that I am smart (my calculus went something like this: I hang with engineers and computer scientists from MIT, they are smart, and they like me, and they only like smart people, therefore, I must be smart) instead of doing something practical like earning money. My friend, however, was completely unperturbed.
I thought about all I know about her, about how her parents wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, and about how she struggled with those demands in her twenties, until she found her niche. My friend said that even when she tried law school, she never envisioned herself as a partner in a big firm, but rather as "one of the billion" lawyers at AT&T or some other company, "working in my little cubicle."
My sister's husband is a psychoanalyst. He said he would define success as living an expression of the True Self as described by D.W. Winnicott. While everyone in my "family of origin" has either been to a psychoanalyst or is one, I had to do a little research on Winnicott. Research is ongoing, but what I understand so far is that True Self is the authentic expression of personality, without concern for fitting into or living out someone else's expectations (that would be False Self.) Winnicott was an object relations psychologist, and believed that child development occurs in the bond between infant and mother. In infancy, any action that is self-initiated, such as grasping toes, is considered an expression of True Self. The response of the mother is crucial to the mix, creating the usual mess of False and True selves that make up most of us. And requires much psychotherapy when we grow up.
I digress. But not totally.
Other people who've identified themselves as feeling successful share my friend's realistic attitude. Some of them had early ambitions that might be described as "burning," but discovered, in trying for them, that they weren't the right fit. There was a certain amount of shucking of other people's unrealistic expectations about them before they reached this point. (By the way, they all seem to have managed this shucking on their own. None of them, to my knowledge, has been in psychoanalysis.)
It is perhaps too obvious to mention, but I will anyway, that the stage of life a person is in affects how successful she or he feels. If I'd interviewed these people ten years ago, their answers might have been quite different.
Nevertheless, I can conclude that people who feel successful share the trait of realistic self-knowledge, an open, honest self-assessment that accepts limits, eschews mountain-summit ambitions, and comprises awareness of intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps they've succeeded in living as their True Selves.
And perhaps that explains a lot of my feelings of failure.