all of the selves we Have ever been
My vision is changing with age.
From time to time I come across lists of “notable failures,” people who suffered a lack of success early in life or career and later rose to fame and fortune. I know these stories are intended to inspire, but sometimes they mislead. The stories do not reflect the entire reality of a person’s life. Sometimes these stories conceal important truths or reduce the significance of the journey making the rest of us feel like losers.
Bill Gates is someone whose name frequently appears on these lists of notable failures. But his dropping out of Harvard does not imply failure at any level. He was never a failure. He was always brilliant, well-educated, and well-supported. He simply changed directions and chose to pick up speed toward his destination. Bill Gates didn’t need Harvard to get where he was going. Is it un-American to say so?
I have lived among the poor and often brokenhearted for most of my life. It has been a rich experience. I’ve known brave children disfigured by terrible abuse, individuals who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust, veterans of horrific wars, refugees from the tyranny of Stalin, people living with painful cancers and neurodegenerative diseases—all remarkable people who have changed my view of success.
I am intrigued by self-help books. I love story. I am eager to understand where someone comes from, how they got where they are. I am hopeful to learn from their struggles and their strategies, but I am also aware that we are each so different that the same ten point plan that worked for one may not work for others. These success stories often downplay the interaction of talent with luck and timing. If you were born during the Great Depression, survival alone might be a mighty success. If you are an aspiring writer who happens to sit next to a well-respected agent during a flight from New York to London, good things might come from that happenstance. If you are the son of a president, you might have a greater chance of becoming president yourself.
We can’t always tell what’s in people by looking at them though we make important decisions about them based on a glance. I think of the story of two veterans. Their lives came together on a battlefield. One was down and taking enemy fire. The other soldier swooped in and rescued the downed soldier. The rescued soldier made a career in the military rising to the highest ranks at the Pentagon. The rescuer is homeless. Which one is a success? The same story and the same circumstances leave them with two different outcomes. If you save someone’s life, can you ever be an utter failure? If you save someone’s life and that life goes on to achieve great success, are you not part of the success story, too?
Most of us live humble lives. We won’t be getting book deals to tell our stories. Because of our cultural measuring stick, we don’t always understand that we have succeeded. We have our own failures, but even those failures are often less than “notable”--
My vision is changing with age. I think I see more clearly now.