Grade 10 Watercolor_Mountains Lake

How Do YOU Measure Success?

“I have a very simple definition of success, which is, any day above ground is a good day…” writes Stanford professor of medicine and renowned author Abraham Verghese. During this season of endings and new beginnings, the question of what is success and how does one find, achieve, or secure a successful life rears its head in classrooms, in graduation speeches, and at family dinner tables around the country. My own home is no exception, where the question joins us as we celebrate milestone passages for two of my daughters (high school and medical school), and I am beginning to contemplate my own “big transition” a year from now.

I always enjoy reading commencement addresses. I hope to find some nugget of wisdom, perhaps a new truth, about how to live a “successful” life filled with meaning and joy. Two of my favorites include the inspiring and humorous 2005 speech by David Foster Wallace and a more recent 2016 discourse by Omid Safi. He, too, tackles our tireless quest for success and what that means. Safi offers that “we preach a kind of Gospel of Success in this country. We want you to be successful in your personal life. Successful in your love life. Successful in your faith. Successful in your investment…. Success is not some kind of a teleological process, not some kind of a linear climb up a mountain. Nor is it even something as straightforward as a cliché that ‘the journey is just as important as the destination.'”

He goes on to say, “The truth of the matter is that life is really messy. Life is complicated. Every single one of us, even the ones who from the outside look like we have made it, stumble and fall flat on our face multiple times. We fail personally. We fail to be kind to those we are closest to. We fail in jobs we apply for.”

I wholly concur with Safi’s view that life is messy and complicated, and remind myself and my children of this weekly, if not daily. However, I am troubled that Safi moves from what feels like a healthy and reassuring dismantling of the traditional markers of success to juxtaposing it to failure. Our definition of failure must derive from how we determine success—success and failure are inexorably linked; failure by its very nature must be measured against something else.

So… where does this leave us? Often (in keeping with the graduation speech theme) we turn to the platitudes around the importance of taking risks, following your heart, and marching to the beat of your own drummer. Instead, I’d like to return to Verghese’s somewhat simplistic (perhaps a bit gloomy) but honest appraisal, and add a caveat. Success encompasses a day above ground AND being present. There is a twist here, though — by presence I do not mean connecting with others, as is often thought. I think we first must strive to be present and connected within ourselves, truly listening to our own needs, wants, and desires. Understanding and embracing our own humanness moves us away from viewing our life as a success or failure, to celebrating the unique experiences that every day brings simply because we are here and open to this moment and the one that follows and the one after that. Hopefully more often than not, our being present includes joy, happiness, love, and the other characteristics we often ascribe to a successful life. But there will be days when it does not, and that’s not failure. That is just another day above ground, which in itself is a blessing.

Wishing us all long summer days filled with space to both truly listen and find renewal.


P.S. For those of you who share my interest in graduation speeches, you might enjoy these.