Coulda Woulda Shoulda

A feature by Abby Ellin in this month’s issue of Psychology Today got me thinking about success, and how we measure it.

Click here to read an excerpt from the article: “I Coulda Been a Contender,” a reported piece with elements of personal essay, about how so many of us feel we haven’t lived up our professional or artistic potential. It’s a tendency not limited to the unknown ordinary Joe drowning in quiet desperation. In a 1948 letter to publisher F.J. Warburg, George Orwell said of 1984, “I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied.” Really? Not pleased with a book that every English-speaking kid would later read in high school?

Orwell admired James Joyce, wanted to become a novelist of Joycean bent, and even (seemingly) tried to mimic Joyce’s modernistic style in a surreslistic scene in his novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter…to unfortunate effect. But Orwell was no Joyce, and why should he be? He was, and could be, only himself, and a towering, world-changing self he turned out to be. If Orwell had continued to wish he were Joyce and not Orwell, we would have no chilling expose of the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia), no Animal Farm, no 1984.

If the disease plagued a writer of Orwell’s stature, it’s little wonder the rest of us aren’t immune. “We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up,” writes Ellin, pointing out that this kind of thinking can hinder us from creating our own style of success, on our own terms. Reading through the university alumni magazine about all those classmates with PhDs and Fortune 500 companies, sneaking around the Facebook pages of friends with seemingly perfect everything…it’s all a big distraction, she says, from the hard work of building the life you actually want.

I just had one of those long, wonderful, catch-up conversations with a great friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen in around 8 years, a person whose work, intellect, and perspective I both enjoy and admire. We’re both radio and print journalists, and he’s done truly great work; he speaks multiple languages; he’s lived abroad for years–an unfulfilled lifelong dream of mine. But talking with him, I never feel that gnawing sense of wasted time and potential that plagues me sometimes (especially when I’m talking with or obsessively Googling people I admire).

I suppose it helps that this friend tells me the whole truth about his life–the excitements and disappointments, the thrills and day-to-day frustrations of living in the third-world, exciting new intellectual pursuits vs. the occasional disillusionment with career. And it doesn’t hurt that he offers perspectives on my life that counter my self-critical tendencies. He says my life sounds fun, exciting, and meaningful, from where he sits.

We joked about how the kinds of detail-rich, personality-driven features we both like to write tend to be dismissed by hard-hitting news reporters as “fluff.” What I suddenly realized during our conversation was that it wasn’t only other people dismissing the work; I was dismissing it as well–my work, that is, not my friend’s–as something not to be taken seriously. “Why?” he demanded. And suddenly, I was confessing to him that I love writing profiles about people quietly making their little corner of the world better: a friend who runs a creativity camp for young girls, or a woman helping kids from housing projects see their hardscrabble world differently through a camera’s lens.

What’s wrong with doing those stories?” he pointed out. And he was right. The problem with those of us who feel we somehow don’t measure up isn’t about a lack of talent, it’s about mindset. Dreaming big is fine, but you’ve gotta make a tangible plan to get there and do the hard work all along the way. A vague, unsettled sense that “I could do better” doesn’t do anything but cast a dark pall over a life that’s probably rocking along just fine.

Which reminds me, I’d better shut this down and get some pages done on a book idea of mine…

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