Believe it or not, this is a real question, posted to the Quora feed. What followed in a response was a post by a young woman about her father. The upshot of her comments was:
“He taught me that you can always succeed if you believe you’ll succeed.
So believe in yourself. I know that’s cheesy, but I’m currently in class with a 74-year-old woman who’s getting her psychology degree after being a housewife for 45 years. My dad was five years from retirement, and then worked an entry level job. People start over at all stages of life. If they can be a success after so long, then anyone can.“
This was apparently a hit with the readers, garnering 2,700 likes and 64 shares when it appeared in my inbox. But, if you read through the heartwarming story, her father “started over” when he was 50. Life looks different at 64. Or 74.
But back to the question: What does it mean “to be successful” much less “giving up” on trying to be successful?
“To be, or not to be? There is consensus that Hamlet is talking about enduring the pain of his life versus the calm of death. But (for me) “being” is more than merely “living” and one of our biggest jobs in moving from living to being is to consider success more deeply. I like to use the Tarot to understand this work – and to remind myself of the stories that I want to tell myself and others.
Juggling with Joy in Early Adulthood — When I was in my 30s, what I wanted most from my life was to experience my young children’s development and maintain a modest professional profile (which meant a job doing something that I liked). In other words, success was measured primarily by short-term joyfulness and maintaining a do-able balance between family and work. It was all about balance….and dancing a little while doing it.
Fast-Forward to My Mid-Forties: Craftsmanship…The kids’ needs were less immediate and they were busy with friends and school. I, on the other hand, was experiencing external “success” at work, with increased ego-stroking responsibilities and annual reviews that placed me among the “exceeds expectations” group in all of the areas associated with being an academic (the three-legged stool of teaching-research-service). I focused on skill and artisanship at work. At the same time, my life was not in balance. I traveled a lot, focused on my own learning, and believed (incorrectly) that my family needed me (or even wanted me) less. Without thinking too much about it, these external markers increased in importance over the next decade. While the focus on skillful work resulted in lots of tokens to hand on the walls of my office, this card does not exude joyfulness….
A Slow Crush..My success contained the seeds of failure. While busily crafting at work, I gradually became accustomed to before-and-during dinner drinks, which allowed me to relax and avoid thinking about my marriage or the daily challenges of parenting teenagers. Work was challenging but manageable, but not the emotions and preferences of other human beings. I managed to hold on to the external trappings of success but lost personal direction and Shakespeare’s “not to be” became an increasingly attractive option.
One of the consequences of depression is a generalized sense of meaninglessness — what better a definition of being unsuccessful? I looked OK on the outside, but the image captures the way life felt on the inside.
Comfort and a Different Success? Twenty years later, my life had changed radically again, with a new (and peaceful) marriage, a position within my work as an “elder stateswoman” whose job was to nurture the development of others, and grandchildren. This Tarot card represents the abundant fruition of success and a life finally almost back in balance. I think that in this image I am both the older person on the left and the woman on the right, in conversation (with a student? My husband?). Bridget, my oldest grandchild, is tugging on my dress, while beloved dogs wait to be petted. Who could ask for more in this life?
This redemptive card is part of the story of dancing while juggling, honing a craft, and ignoring relationships and self. But, in my mid-60s, much life remained.
Becoming New Again? So success (or failure) has meant very different things to me over the last 40 years. Of course I cannot know what further success might look like – it is easy to tell a story after the fact, but predicting anything is a challenge. And rather than hoping for “success” I have to keep reminding myself that I am likely to find a gift if I am willing to accept the mystery and not try to force the future.
To return to the Quora post, what appealed to me about the story that the young woman told was not that her father founded a successful business in his 50s. Rather, it was that he was willing to take a risk:
“He said ‘I don’t think I can make this work anymore. I might have a chance if we move….‘Within a month, we left New York and drove 16 hours down to Georgia.“
I am not sure where I will find my psychological or physical equivalent of Moving-to-Georgia. But, I hope that I will wake up one day, and have a similar insight. And be willing to act on it – with abandon and “wise innocence”, like my favorite Tarot card.
The Fool has found something lasting – a “successful” understanding of joy that emerges from deep inside, seemingly for no reason at all. But he is also embracing adventure — more than willing to take a new risk.