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40 T/D/Y #15: "Most Likely to Succeed"

In junior high, each year we voted on students in our class for the “superlatives” page of the yearbook: which boy and girl were the smartest, the class blusher, the class clown, the nicest, that sort of thing. I’d already established a reputation in elementary school for being a “brain”; there’s no doubt I was smart at least academically, and I was never afraid to speak up with answers to questions in class, plus I was known for reading a lot. As a result, it’s not surprising that I ended up being voted “smartest” in my class all three years in junior high. Interestingly, a different girl was voted smartest each year, I’m not sure why opinions changed like that. I don’t put much stock in this vote, of course. I know a bunch of the other kids were at least as smart as I was, undoubtedly some of them were smarter than I in at least some areas. (I honestly don’t remember who I voted for as smartest, but I think I did not vote for myself.) However, for whatever reason my reputation was widespread enough among the 300-plus kids that I was voted smartest each year.

My best school year throughout primary and secondary school was ninth grade. I missed straight-As for the year by one B grade in my last quarter, I believe in typing class of all things. Everything somehow came together that year: I wasn’t really being bothered by my long-time tormentors anymore, I was focused on schoolwork, the classwork offered the right challenge level, and I got along well with all of my teachers. So perhaps unsurprisingly, I was also voted “most likely to succeed” for the yearbook poll.

Here’s the thing that bothers me lately: 24 years later, I don’t feel successful. I’ve had some successes in my life of course, but I feel like a lot of them came later than they should have, and often came unearned, opportunities falling at my feet that even I couldn’t miss rather than goals that I vigorously and relentlessly pursued until I achieved them. As I’ll be writing about, I ended up stumbling into college—almost literally—after being out of school a year, rather than doing the usual senior-year flurry of applications. It took me ten years after graduating from high school before I finally started my professional career; I did ultimately put some effort into making that happen, but mostly it was a matter of making a decision to pursue temporary work and then having a good job fall into place for me. A few years later when I needed to move on, the opportunity to move to Seattle likewise fell into my lap. And today, after fifteen months of inadequate freelance work, I’m on the edge of going broke and losing my home and I’m still avoiding putting effort into getting steady work. That does not sound to me like someone who’s likely to succeed.

Of course, there are counterarguments to that sort of thinking. I did go to college and did graduate with reasonably good grades. I did finally take steps to find professional work, by seeking out temporary jobs in Boston, and that succeeded exactly as I’d hoped. I did stretch myself to buy a condo, and I haven’t lost it yet, there’s still time to work out my finances. And I do good work, so that when I do find an opportunity, people are happy with what I do and willing to give me more work if they have anything.

I also keep thinking what a strange category “most likely to succeed” is, particularly for kids in their mid-teens to be voting upon. What does success mean? When has someone succeeded? What makes someone the most likely to succeed? And how would 15-year-olds have any good concept of any of that? Well, I suppose by 15 most kids already do have some reasonable concepts of success and how to attain it, but even so, they’ve only got a limited vision of what life will be like 25, 20, even 10 years in their future, and so a limited conception of success. But then, here I am almost 40 years old and I’m still not sure what success is and when I’ll know whether I have it.



( 3 have written — Write )
Dec. 9th, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
Who do you consider successful and why?
Dec. 12th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
That's easily another whole post in itself.
Dec. 31st, 2010 12:42 am (UTC)
Very interesting and thoughtful reflections here, Phil, and very honest. Success, I agree is truly difficult to define because it's so very subjective and personal. One thing I am quite sure of though, and that's that you haven't failed at anything. We all travel different roads and achieve "success" in our own ways. Happy New Year. Mom
( 3 have written — Write )

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