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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Expectations and Success
Somebody told me a story. A college student who wanted to go on and study 18th century English Lit in grad school hit a wall: his father. His father told him to do something practical, like be a doctor, so he went to medical school and became a doctor. He got married, he joined a private practice, he lived in a wealthy suburb of Boston. He was successful, no doubt. But he didn't love his work. Eventually, when his own children were heading into the teenage years, he left his practice and went to graduate school where he earned his doctorate in English Literature. 18th century English Literature. Because he started out "later in life," and because, presumably he wasn't as flexible about where he would live as a young PhD graduate has to be, he never became a full professor. He worked in adjunct positions and so forth. And yes, he was very happy.

Now I don't know this guy. I only know his story third hand. What strikes me, besides his interest in 18th Century English Literature, which is what I would have studied in grad school if I'd decided to go, is that what finally made the guy happy was doing work that tapped into his True Self.   As a private doc, he had a high income (this was in the dawn of HMOs and Managed Care), prestige, etc. But he was unsatisfied. When he changed to literature, he found work was inherently intrinsically motivating. (He also had a nice portfolio, equity in a home in a desirable neighborhood, and who knows, maybe a nice inheritance from the now-deceased paternal wall, but never mind. Bucking expectations takes courage, whatever the circumstances.)

What also strikes me is that success is often defined by someone else's expectations for us. If we are approval-seekers, or non-confrontational types, or just upper middle class strivers, we often sublimate our own interests in pursuit of Success.We might not trust our instincts about what we want to do (my situation), or we might just buy into our elders' world view without question. We may never question it (result: mid life crisis involving expensive car/plastic surgery/affairs) or we may finally (result: major change of career or marriage.)

Here's another story. As a graduate student in the early 1960s, she was at the top of her class; yet she never finished her PhD. Her classmates and professors all expected her to go on, but she didn't. She lost interest in the topic and chose not to. Instead, she raised a family and pursued her academic interests informally. She's pretty hard line about success. She "never accomplished anything" that people expected of her. Nothing to show, not known in a field? Not successful. According to her own inherited beliefs about success.

Neither this person, nor the late-blooming English teacher qualify as successful under such guidelines. However, this doesn't prevent them from feeling satisfied and fulfilled in life. And this is where my thoughts get a little murky. On some level, what I'm getting at is similar to those folks who dissect happiness or contentment or fulfillment. At the feeling level, these terms are somewhat interchangeable. This brings me back to where I started: at the macro level of success, visible, notable, recognizable accomplishments are the best indicators. Is it really any more complicated than that? What do the rest of us do then? Do we feel like failures until and unless we achieve at this level? Do we do what I perhaps have been doing and bring it down to the micro level, charting our mini-accomplishments, breaking our goals down into chewable size and swalling little tastes of mini-success? Or do we do what this woman does, and remove success from the equation of life? Does success matter?

1 comment:

  1. "Nothing makes a man so cross as success, or so soon turns a pleasant friend into a captious acquaintance. Your successful man eats too much and his stomach troubles him ; he drinks too much and his nose becomes blue. He wants pleasure and excitement, and roams about looking for satisfaction in places where no man ever found it. He frets himself with his banker's book, and everything tastes amiss to him that has not on it the flavour of gold. The straw of an omnibus always stinks ; the linings of the cabs are filthy. There are but three houses round London at which a an eatable dinner may be obtained. And yet a few years since how delicious was that cut of roast goose to be had for a shilling at the eating-house near Golden Square. ... Success is the very misfortune of life, but is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early." - Anthony Trollope, Orley Farm