Live your own life. Success is not something that can be measured or worn on a watch or hung on the wall. It is not the esteem of colleagues, or the admiration of the community, or the appreciation of patients. Success is the certain knowledge that you have become yourself, the person you were meant to be from all time.
Dr. George Sheehan
Have you ever complained about the quality of a song on the radio, only to have someone say “yeah, but that guy is making millions of dollars”?
It’s happened a few times recently, and it kind of got under my skin. It’s not that I’m bothered by the idea that a musician–whose music I perceive to be of low-quality–is making a lot of money, but rather that I want to shout “so what?”
So what if that person makes millions? It doesn’t make the song any better. It doesn’t mean that their life is any better. What they earn is irrelevant to the discussion.
But I stop myself from getting too upset. After all, isn’t that just the conventional view: the idea that the more money you earn, the more successful you are, and the more you’re able to live a good life? It’s practically driven into our heads through every institution in society.
In high school, we get good grades so we can get into a good college. We get into a good college so we can get a good job. And we get a good job so we can continue to get better, more lucrative and powerful jobs. Colleges attract potential students not with advertisements of teachers, local writers, social workers, clergy, park rangers, or folks selling handmade wares on Etsy, but with glowing spiels about vice presidents at insurance companies, CEOs, prominent lawyers, medical doctors, non-profit leaders, politicians, and notable professors. The message is “if you come to our college, this can be you”, and it works because many students accept the idea that that’s what they’re supposed to be.
I believed it. When I arrived at college, I only had dollar signs in my eyes. If I’d been asked what I actually wanted out of life, however, I doubt I could have answered. I was eighteen; I didn’t know a damn thing. All I knew is that I wanted to show up to a high school reunion in ten years with a career that would make everyone jealous. I wanted them to know that I’m a better person.
It might sound silly, but that’s what we do. If someone makes a lot of money, we assume that they live an amazing life and have it all figured out. But that’s not necessarily the way it works. Life isn’t that simple. Is a fourth marriage indicative of the good life? What about driving drunk and crashing your car, or checking into a treatment center for drug addiction? Of course there are plenty of folks who are well-off and doing great, but that probably has more to do with who they are as individuals than their net worth.
Of course it doesn’t stop us from thinking that, in our own way, we need to reach certain level of affluence for all to be well. I’ve watched people tap out their financial resources because they don’t believe they can–or should–live below a certain standard. They purchase too expensive of a home, for example, or get locked into absurd monthly payments just to have that new car. Some even anchor themselves to homes they can barely afford because moving out of the suburbs and into an apartment or a small place in the city is, apparently, an unacceptable course of action.
But I understand why this happens. We’re a capitalistic society. And whether you think that’s good or bad, it simply is what it is. The game is growth, competition, and acquisition. We pit everyone against each other and reward those who rise to the top of whatever it is that they do. Nobody wants to be seen as a loser. We consume, consume more, and once we get what we want, we want even more. It’s easy to mistake this game for a natural state of affairs and just go with the flow. To step back, examine who we are and what we want, and arrive at our own definition of success…well, it’s difficult.
That’s one of the reasons I like reading from the late Dr. George Sheehan. He understood this. He realized that success in life can be about so much more than the conventional pursuit of, as William Irvine says, “affluence, social status, and pleasure”. For Sheehan, his personal liberation came by way of running. It helped him to redefine his purpose.
As his son, Andrew, wrote:
Like Henry David Thoreau in his walks at Walden Pond, Dad found that running could help simplify his life, stripping it from the complicating need for possessions and position. The sky, the air, and the trail by the river were all free to enjoy, and to experience them all through running was liberating for him. Even more important, play became the gateway to self-discovery. In running, he got closer and closer to becoming the person he was meant to be–not someone else’s idea of who he should be.
Dr. Sheehan spent decades combating feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, and incompleteness. Trying to be successful in the conventional sense without examining who he was and what he wanted. But that changed.
Then I discovered running and began the long road back. Running made me free. It rid me of concern for the opinion of others. Dispensed me from rules and regulations imposed from the outside. Running let me start from scratch.
It stripped off those layers of programmed activity and thinking. Developed new priorities about eating and sleeping and what to do with leisure time. Running changed my attitude about work and play. About whom I really liked and who really liked me. Running let me see my twenty-four-hour day in a new light and my lifestyle from a different point of view, from the inside instead of out.
This isn’t to say that he was unique or special–many endurance athletes express similar thoughts–only that Dr. Sheehan had a way of putting into words what many folks understand to be true.
In fact, it’s mostly through endurance sports that I’ve been able to connect the dots of disjointed experiences and thinking on this subject. When I’m running through a long trail on a beautiful, summer day, I’m often struck by the realization of just how great life is right now. It reminds me how little I really need to live a good life. Much of what we believe is necessary–the new car, the fancy clothes, the expensive home, the prestigious job–those are all nice things, for sure, but they’re nothing compared to a true sense of being alive.
This isn’t to say that anything is wrong with pursuing those things. By all means, be ambitious and work hard to achieve your goals! There is nothing wrong with climbing the ladder, starting a business, and trying to become conventionally successful. But do it because that’s what you want–not because it’s what you think you’re supposed to want.
In the meantime, let me make my snarky comments about new music on the radio. Really, some of it sucks.