Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Today I had a question posed to me; what does success mean? And the follow-up question; does it change with time? The answer, of course, is that the definition of success is highly personal, and yes, of course it changes. It’s personal because we all define success for ourselves based on what is most important to us, and what’s important changes as we age.
For me, success was tied to teaching. I viewed my success based on the success of my students. If they were successful, then I was successful. Interestingly, my students never did well on standardized testing, but they did remarkably well on graduation, industrially and academically depending on the path they chose to pursue. Go me, that was a far greater measure of success than how they did on a standardized exam.
I also measured my level of success on my rank and position. Eventually I did reach the rank of tenured full professor, the highest rank in active academia. The one higher rank, Professor Emeritus, was an honorary rank given to retired professors. When I did reach this rank, I kind of felt rudderless. Once you’ve reached your success, you can enjoy it for a time, but there are no more goals for which to strive. Some people enjoy being able to sit back and enjoy their success, but that was never me.
Now, I’m retired. I have no more goals, nothing to which strive, and no mechanism by which to measure success. It feels like being adrift, and it’s highly uncomfortable, at least to me. Am I successful because of my past accomplishments, or unsuccessful as I have no goals to achieve?
For many people, like my friend, they have family to showcase their success, an area in which I am an abject failure. I’m very jealous of her for her success. Her children are wonderful people, and she has many grandchildren from them. I tried to convince her of her role in raising such marvelous children, but she seems to have a hard time measuring her success by their accomplishments. Being without children, I see the success of her lifetime of effort. Unfortunately, she is very much like me. She tends to measure her success in terms of her career, at which she was very successful, as I was, and like me she is now more or less retired.
She asked me about the societal definition of success. If you ask me, measuring your success by the usual societal standards is much like me measuring my success on my students’ scores on those standardized exams. Society tends to define success on money, on power, and on titles. As a dean, with a large salary, society saw me as successful. Being fired because I stood up for my faculty, and society sees me as a failure. But I don’t. If I’m going to be fired, let it be for protecting my people. That, in my mind, is a success.
Living up to society’s definitions of success is a dangerous thing. How many people have suffered from bulimia because their bodies don’t look like the models’ in magazines? How many LGBTQ+ people have suffered through “corrective therapy” to turn them heterosexual, or suffer in silence because they cannot bring themselves to believe that they actually are okay?
Many people would look at my early career as highly successful. I attained a high education, a high academic rank, and high administrative positions with high pay. They would look at me as a failure as I was sleeping in my friends’ spare rooms. Today I am again successful because my parents died and left me money. How sad to be successful because of the death of parents.
I don’t much care about what society thinks of me. I’ve been an outcast my entire life, and that’s okay. There’s a certain freedom in living a life without trying to live up to somebody’s ideals. It doesn’t do much for your reputation, but that’s okay with me. Yet, I am a failure. I have no children, and no family. It’s a hard truth to face that, in the end, I’m nothing but a lonely old man.
And how do I advise my friend? I really cannot. In my eyes, I envy her success, but success is defined personally. She and I are at a weird age, where we are old enough to be approaching retirement (and old enough for early retirement), and yet young enough to feel like we should be doing more. Heck, we’re capable of doing more. I guess that might also be part of the problem. We’ve both been hard workers our entire lives, and it’s hard to “downshift” to a slower lifestyle. I only wish she could see herself through my eyes. I think she’d be stunned.