The Measure of Success

Here’s one good thing about being close to my 76th birthday, I no longer strive to be a success. I spend more time just being. I try to give back to my community, to my family and friends. I watch my grandchildren negotiating a challenging culture in a sometimes scary world and I pray for them. I was blessed to be a child in a time when things seemed less stressful. Today’s world seems more tenuous, more difficult. I thank God I was a child who could wander the streets of our neighborhood without the faintest hint of fear. We dwelt in an easier time. I was a shy child given to nervously chattering, talking fast and barely taking a breath, until some adult would sternly suggest I be quiet. I was sometimes called Chatty Jo or Talky Jo, rather than Patti Jo. I sometimes hid behind my mom when we would meet someone on the street. In spite of my chatter, I was a good listener and a good learner. I began reading the newspaper with my dad before I turned five. And I became an eavesdropper at about the same age. I was intensely trying to figure out life, those five Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how did all that fit into my world, the bigger world. I was a dreamy, intense child. My parents modeled strong values of responsibility, caring for others, honesty, integrity, truthfulness. I was surprised when I grew old enough to realize not everyone had those values and some people had opposite character traits. I never heard discussions of success when I listened to my parents talking about their plans, their hopes, their friends’ lives. I heard about living right, doing what was right, and a fair amount about God. As I reflect on all of this, I’m not sure what exactly contributed to my drive to do well, to succeed. I never took the time to decide my own measures of success until I was into my senior years. Money was never on my list of success measurements. Doing my best was at the top of my list, my best as a mother, grandmother, friend, and my best as a journalist and a professional communicator. I instinctively knew what was my best effort and what was not. I did not compete against others but against myself. And I could be a perfectionist, causing stress that made me less than a nice person. I know what changed that for me. It was my decision to learn how to live as a follower of Christ. Being a person who lived as I learned a Christian should live came to matter more each year and still does.

I have writing and other awards and certificates on one wall in my office. I didn’t hang them there. I would keep them in a box or eventually chuck them. My husband wanted them hung and did the job himself. He is proud of my achievements and I respect his decision but I prefer my wall with my photographs and art work of tigers. I understand my fascination with tigers and no-one else needs to. So why am I writing about success? Because I think we all learn most from failures, small and large ones. And in this success driven culture, I worry today’s children may not understand that. They may get confused and think a personal failure means the person is a failure. Not so. I know we gain skills by perfecting them. I also know we learn when we make mistakes. It may be a mistake on the job or on a test in school. It could be a tougher mistake where we mess up in a friendship, hurt or disappoint someone we care about. Repeated similar mistakes mean you aren’t paying attention or you are so self-centered you really don’t get it. But if we learn from our mistakes, we grow, we change, and we can be more honest with ourselves and with others. And all risks in life require the ability to analyze, try and if you fail, then analyze, add the factors leading to the failure and try again. If you want to watch what it’s like to keep on trying until you succeed, study a baby taking first steps or learning how to get food on a spoon and then in the mouth. If you are a parent, talk about failure with your children, not just success. Teach your child to succeed but teach them how to fail and learn. They’ll be better equipped for a happy life as adults. And share your values with your children, literally sit and talk about those values. Get feedback from your kids at different ages. I didn’t have those conversations with my children. I wish I had. I do try to sneak them in with grandchildren and some women I have mentored. By the way, I still fail, and the failures I grieve over are those where I have hurt someone I love. You’d think I’d have learned how not to do that as I approach my 76th birthday.

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