This Is How to Define the True Feeling of Success

A man reexamines his life and discovers some unappreciated moments of joy, hope, and success.

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I was having coffee this morning with a dear friend who’s going through a difficult time at work. In one of those moments that make you wonder who’s winding the clock of life, my phone buzzed while we were sitting there. It was an e-mail from my old friend Ryan, and all I saw was the subject line: “Success.”

Some 17 years ago, Ryan and I were sportswriters at “competing” small newspapers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We had about a half dozen high schools, a Division III university, and a summer baseball league in our coverage area. In that lava-hot turf war, we somehow became friends.

We’ve kept in touch, but it’d been a few months since we’d talked when this curiously timed e-mail arrived. He said he was preparing a speech for the next week. He’s now a project manager for a research firm near Washington, and the speech he was going to give was titled “How Do You Define Success?” I’ve contributed to a publication called Success, so he turned the question to me: “How do you define success?” I thought of my coffee conversation and typed this:

Hey, man,

Good to hear from you again. And good timing. Your e-mail came in just as I was chatting with another friend, who’s going through one of those rough spells at work. I wish I had better advice.

What a broad question!

You know, after I left the Shenandoah Valley, my next job was in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I made $22,500 a year—and this was 2005, not a generation ago. The two other sportswriters on staff, Travis and Jeff, were in their mid-20s too. Honestly, we’d come to Rocky Mount to leave Rocky Mount. We spent our time talking about what life must be like at a “real” news­paper. We griped about our shop and drooled over the Charlotte ­Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer. What resources they had! Writers who covered only one team and didn’t have to lay out pages or proofread box scores. Talk about living the dream. If we could just get to one of those places! Then we could go somewhere else!

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Travis, Jeff, and I bonded over our desire to part ways. We ate dinner together, went out to cover our games, and came back to help send the final pages to the printer by our 1:30 a.m. deadline. On the best nights, we’d grab the news editors and copy editors and play Wiffle ball in the parking lot until 4 a.m., laughing and joking until almost sunrise.

We all left there within a year, as intended. Travis eventually landed a big-time job covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he now has a New York Times bestselling sports book about baseball. Jeff became one of the most well-known NASCAR writers in the country, with almost 200,000 Twitter followers. Now he’s got his own media company that’s doing quite well.

In 2017, Jeff and I went to a Charlotte Knights game, and he said something about Rocky Mount that I won’t forget. “I didn’t appreciate it then, but honestly, when I look back, it’s probably the best time I’ve ever had in my career.”

What is success? Buddy, I don’t know. On those late nights, it was making good contact on Travis’s curveball. Now it’s running a tenth of a mile farther than I did last week. Or the sound of a storm door latching shut after I install it myself. Or the morning Laura said yes.

More than a year ago, I wrote a story and no readers yelled at me about it, which these days is a success. But nobody said anything nice either, so is it a failure? I don’t know.

College students ask me for advice every now and then, if you can believe it. Maybe that’s success. But last night an editor at a publication I’ve been dying to write for replied to a pitch with the murderous words “This just isn’t the right fit for us,” and I scanned job boards for a new line of work.

Maybe it’s beyond work, though. In June 2018, my dad visited and made it the whole weekend without falling while transferring to his wheelchair. That’s a victory. To another person, though, success might be a senior discount on McDonald’s coffee, or a night sleeping on a bench without getting wet, or the last meeting with a parole officer. You get the point.

Maybe success isn’t measured in achievements, or “being happy with who you are,” or any of the clichés in self-help books on this matter. Goals and personal peace are selfish markers, and I don’t mean to imply selfishness is a bad thing, not at all. Selfishness is the axis of humankind, from cavemen to astronauts to saints on earth.

Individual accomplishments bring community accomplishments bring worldwide accomplishments. But all of the accomplishments in the universe may not leave you feeling successful, right?

I’m rambling here, I know. But the point is, maybe success is a smaller calculation, something more like what Jeff hinted at. Maybe success is having the wherewithal to be grateful at the precise moment you have something to be grateful for.

Thank you for writing, old friend.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest