On being … a meaningful measure

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 at me.

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


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