On “Success”


Photo by Pensiero

Photo by Pensiero

I was having lunch recently with a friend and the subject got around to how each of us would characterize a “successful” life – this is a typical conversation for geezers when not engaged in their usual, what I call “organ recitals,” (AKA- the medical laundry list).
I have a lot of trouble around that word “success” – a word that my sweet wife believes is “loaded with huge baggage and judgment”, and which in our culture unfortunately, mostly always stands for money, fame or power.

When my turn came I offered my view that a successful life is one which, when you die, even one person sheds a tear and really means it.

My lunch partner said “Michael, don’t you think that’s setting the bar pretty low?”

Since then I’ve been thinking about whether I agree with him, and I’ve decided that I don’t. Although it’s not perfect, I’m pretty comfortable with my perspective.

It seemed like there were two parts to this that I needed to think about:

-Firstly, my definition of “success” (in this context) being about deep, authentic connections with each other, which I believe is what mostly all humans hunger for, more than anything else (actually, more than everything else).

-And secondly, my choice of the number one, only one. Am I really setting the bar too low?

Let me take the second part first: Obviously I’m not suggesting that one is best. Of course, the more authentic, loving connections you have created, the happier a life you will have lived, (and already are living): “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  (Beatles, Let It Be).

But, who gets to decide on the number? Exactly how many constitutes “success?” 10? 100? 1,000,000? Once we start down the numbers road we’re back into the “fame game”. By this standard, does only Martin Luther King, or John Lennon, or Gandhi “succeed?” I don’t think so.

About 15 years ago, in my Montreal days, an author of a book on the holocaust was being interviewed on the radio, and the host, Peter Gzowski (a Canadian national treasure by the way), asked him: “why did you focus on one family only, on one life instead of the millions?” He answered: “because millions of deaths are a statistic.  One death is a catastrophe.”

One feels like the right number. A successful life is available to everybody.

Now for the money/fame/power thing: This part’s easier. I don’t think a day goes by that any one of us couldn’t find in the media, (without having to look very hard), yet another piece about one or another desperately unhappy rich, famous or powerful person who has made a total wreck of their own life, others’ lives, done some really awful stuff or come to some horrific or bizarre end.

It is so abundantly clear that piling up cash does not do it for people. Nor does the fame or power. I reckon these things are OK, but in and of themselves, they are not enough for these folks. They still hunger for and seek authentic, honest, connection.

So now, where do Socrates, Mozart, Isaac Newton and Van Gogh fit into all of this? Well, I think that here we need to be make a distinction between a “great” life (Shakespeares are few and far between) and a “successful” life (available to all).

I think this might be what my friend was referring to with his comment about me setting the bar too low. I did not mean that we shouldn’t do the absolute best we are capable of in our work, but only that we should invest ourselves in (enjoy) the process, not attach to the outcome.

Every time I listen to Mozart’s Requiem, see a production of Romeo and Juliet, read a great poem, or get a flu shot, I am overcome with profound gratitude for these all the towering artists, thinkers, scientists who have gone before, enriched my life immeasurably, and on whose shoulders we all stand.

Would I dare say that these giants didn’t “succeed?” Of course I wouldn’t. These achievers were unbelievably successful – for my sake, and for all the rest of us. But what about for themselves, in their own lives, and by these criteria? I don’t know actually. I reckon you’d have to ask them.

An individual comes to mind – the late Judy Garland. (For you non- geezers, think Dorothy in the movie with the scarecrow, the lion, and the tin man, you know the movie – the one that just keeps turning up and won’t go away)

“The greatest artist who ever lived and probably ever will,” (Fred Astaire); “The most talented woman I ever knew.” (Bing Crosby);  “The finest all round performer we ever had in America.” (Gene Kelly); on and on…

And Judy’s words?  “If I’m such a legend, why am I so lonely?” What she craved was fewer fans – and more friends. Of course she succeeded. She just didn’t know it.

The legend…found dead sitting on the toilet in her bathroom, age 47, official cause of death Barbituate (quinalbarbitone) poisoning.

Of the countless examples of why fame and fortune, aren’t where it’s at, why did I think of Judy Garland? Because of the song – the song she was (and still is) best known by and loved for. Everybody knows the song. More precisely though, the last two lines:

“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why oh why can’t I?”

Why indeed?

It’s here, have a listen:

Practice Tip Push PinPractice Tip: I have a practice that I started doing a few years ago that I love, and want to share it with you. Whenever I have a warm, positive, or other good thought about someone I know, I don’t just think it, I tell them-either in a note or in their face. It can be anything: something they have accomplished, an attribute which I admire or respect, a good thing they have said or done that I have heard about, something I am grateful to them for – whatever it is, I tell them. This makes me very, very happy.

Do this. It will make them happy. It will make you happy. I guarantee it.

And remember, please…

Be kind to yourself,


About Michael Scott

Michael Scott is a life coach, author and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending 35 years in business - coaching found him - and he's never looked back. Michael uses his coaching training and experience, in the service of his clients, as their constant and loving guide towards joyous, fulfilling lives which are genuinely their own. He lives with his dear wife in Sausalito, CA.

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