By Ingrid Sapona
I don’t know about you, but sometimes the most unexpected
things set my mind wandering toward discouraging thoughts. I guess what makes
me even more frustrated is that even when I realize the cause for my
discombobulated emotional state, I can’t always stop the thoughts from nagging
By now I’m sure you’ve guessed that something triggered just
such a jag last week. It was a New York Times article a friend sent me about a
law school classmate of ours (I’ll call him Horace). Apparently Horace founded
a company that specializes in taking on certain kinds of cases. Objectively
speaking, the article was as much about the relatively new area of law Horace specializes
in, as it was about him.
Whether the article painted a flattering picture of Horace
is open to interpretation and, to be honest, after I read it I couldn’t decide.
The article included background information about him and how he realized that
this was a niche that could be quite lucrative. It talks about him being
“focused to the point of being obsessive” and about the different tactics he
employs in the course of his work. Oh, and it mentions he earns about $25
million a year.
The 3300+ word article provided more than the normal food
for thought, not to mention fodder for the emotional cannon that exploded in my
head. Sure, jealousy is clearly at play, as I’m fairly sure I won’t make $25
million in my lifetime, let alone in one year. But that wasn’t the only emotion
that tripped me up. Frankly, it was bigger than that. It was a feeling of being
wholly inadequate by comparison to my classmate. How could it be that we have
basically the same education, which to my mind means we both had the same
opportunities, and yet he seems to have a lot more to show for it?
I told a friend about the turmoil the article stirred in me
and about my feelings of inadequacy by comparison to Horace’s obvious success.
This led to a discussion of the common propensity to measure success based on
money. Forbes’ annual ranking of billionaires and all the media coverage that
list gets every year is proof that money is one of the standard measures of success
in our society.
But, as my friend pointed out, the question I should ask myself
is whether money has ever been a motivating force or central focus for me. The
truth is, it hasn’t been. I’ve been more motivated to find ways of expressing
myself creatively and to find an audience for my writing. Sure, I’ve always
hoped that money will flow from my efforts, but it’s not been how I’ve measured
whether I’m successful at expressing myself.
Once my friend helped me realize that, I went back and
re-read the article to see what else might have contributed to the reaction I
felt. There were a number of details about Horace’s life that were objective
signs of success – a spouse and child, a multi-million dollar home, a car
collection, and impressionist paintings. But again, if I’m honest with myself, none
of these are things I’ve striven for or necessarily wanted. (Ok, the
impressionist paintings, maybe.)
After I finished re-reading the article, I thought about whether
there’s anything that could be said in a New York Times article about my career
that might make any of my classmates feel they don’t measure up by comparison.
I’m quite sure the answer to that is no. But, once I thought about it in those
terms, I realized a fundamental truth that had escaped me as I was reading
about Horace and his life.
What I lost sight of is the fact that there are many ways you
can evaluate your success. Maybe the reason society tends to measure success by
things like money, hours worked, cases won, meals served, patients seen, and so
on, is because they are quantifiable and therefore they lend themselves to
comparison. I think what really matters is not how your life measures up against
others’ – it’s how it stacks up against your own dreams and goals, neither of which
are necessarily quantifiable or objectively evaluated. In other words, just
because your accomplishments aren’t the kind that might make for interesting
reading in the New York Times, it doesn’t mean you don’t measure up.
© 2013 Ingrid Sapona