Day 22–Defining and Outlining a Successful Life

Someone should have told the Carolina wren it was too cold to sing. After yesterday’s snow day, during which some eight or so inches of snow fell (and I was able to create a most awesome snowperson,) this morning dawned bright and sunny and bitterly cold. The wind chill factor made the temperature outside feel like 5 degrees below zero. I booted up and jacketed Honor, my canine companion before booting and jacketing myself to brave the early morning walk. She actually hates the boots, quivering with dislike and dread each time I put them on her, but somehow managing to endure the discomfort and indignity. I had actually cleared a short path in the snow thinking that perhaps Honnie wouldn’t want to trek in snow that was much deeper than her little booties covered, and sure enough she took care of her business a few short feet away from the house.

It took me over 30 minutes to clean off my car (which started very reluctantly) and sweep off my sidewalk and driveway. I don’t have a full-size snow shovel; I use an old broom and sweep the snow off my porches and other surfaces. It’s not terribly efficient but it works for me. I was reminded as I always am when it’s this cold that for many people without shelter, weather like this is more than inconvenient, it is dangerous. Some of the challenges I face when the weather turns bad are basic inconveniences, they are not a matter of life and death. There are so many things that fall into the category of “First World problems.” In the scheme of things, there are people who would love to have my “problems.” So I try to keep things in perspective–cold is relative.

I had coffee with a colleague the other day. We chatted about a variety of things, some related to work, some related to the holidays that had just passed. Something prompted me to ask about their future career plans and if they wanted to be a senior-level administrator some day. They nodded indicating that was definitely a direction they were hoping to take some day. Given who they are I have little doubt that they’ll do it. I found myself curiously unaffected by any such desire, which I found fascinating. I suppose it is a function of a variety of things, not the least of which is my age; but I have no such desire to be a senior level anything. My young colleague is at least 12 to 15 years younger than I am, so I suppose they are still interested in climbing the ladder. I suppose I have climbed the ladder and while I could scarcely say I had reached the top, I can say I’ve climbed far enough up and seen enough to know that I’m pretty good where I am now.

It reminds me a bit of Trina Paulus’ little book, “Hope for the Flowers” in which two caterpillars find themselves climbing toward the top of their particular version of the ladder. Part of the way up they start questioning the purpose of their climbing and striving. The story is about their journey and what they learn along the way. For me, my career has been less of a upward climb and more of a gradual, meandering incline. I’ve worked hard, had some creative ideas that I’ve been able to watch become successful programs. I’ve made some good friends and colleagues along the way. But I’ve never ascended to any particular height or fame in my field. Once upon a time I felt that I was somehow less than other colleagues whose careers took different trajectories and they became “successful” in their field. I had made or been offered different choices, yet somehow the yardstick by which I measured my career success came up short.

What I am discovering, albeit slowly, is that the only yardstick that can truly measure my degree of success is internal, defined by me and me alone, really. I know of a number of people who are materially successful–doing well financially, and have all the trappings of success–and are extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. They have climbed ladders, jumped through hoops, and done everything that was expected of them, and they are miserable and in some cases morally bankrupt. If I measure myself by the external trappings of success, then I suppose one could say I am mediocre, having achieved only a minimal level of material prosperity. And while material success would be nice, if I had to choose, I’d opt for living a more authentic if more austere life than an opulent, fake life in which I have to perform to keep up appearances. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare said, and I suppose this is as good a way to live a life and guide a career as anything else.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up in my modest little house, have my coffee and write in my journal before getting myself together for my day. I’ll take my little mutt outside in the frigid cold, doing whatever I need to do to see to her comfort, will fire up my car and get ready for my morning commute to work. I will do all these things grateful for all that I have and for the many blessings that are a part of my life. I’ll go to work and do the best I can for the people I lead and the people we serve. I will help as many people as I possibly can in whatever ways I can. At the end of the day I will listen for the Carolina wren singing for all she’s worth as I walk to my car for the long drive home. And I will count myself a success.

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