Defining success: my fight with a stranger in paradise
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. [Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods]

So there we were in San Juan, having recently arrived in Puerto Rico to attend the wedding of our former colleague, settling into luxurious couches on the oceanfront patio with mint-infused rum drinks in our hands. The topic of conversation was my career path, more specifically the evolving creative journey of my sabbatical since quitting my job eight months ago. (See more on that here.) We were discussing the recipe I wrote for a post about shakshuka when out of nowhere, the man on the couch next to us butted into our conversation. He’d tried a couple of times, but having lots to catch up on and limited time, we’d been ignoring his attempted interjections until the volume of his incessant interruptions became too impossible to tune out.

He fired off a round of questions about everything from my ceramics to if I lived in Brooklyn to why I needed to market myself. Teetering on the brink of rudeness, his remarks centered on the importance of branding. “You need to build your brand,” he said. “You shouldn’t waste time doing anything else. It’s about you. It’s about building your brand. No one else will. You need to focus 100% of your time on your own brand.” This message could be reasonably appropriate given the context, but the unprompted commentary didn’t stop there. After my friends left to get drinks, he honed in on his apparent real intentions.

“So, you’re unemployed?” he asked.

“I’m on sabbatical,” I said. “I’m traveling and reading and writing and doing pottery.”

“But do you have a job right now?”

“No. I quit my job eight months ago.”

“So you’re unemployed then.”

“I guess, if that’s what you want to call it.”

“I knew it. That’s the problem with you young people. You don’t know how to work. You should be getting to work at 6am and leaving at 8pm. You should be working evenings, nights, all around the clock. I expect the young people in my office to work constantly without any recognition – that’s how you make it to the top. You have to pay your dues. You pay your dues through work.”

“I did that for six and a half years,” I said. “And six and a half years was enough for me to realize I don’t want that life!”

“It’s not a choice. You have to do it if you want to be happy. How are you ever going to have nice things if you don’t make good money?”

“But I don’t want nice things.”

“Sure you do. Without money you won’t have a boat, you won’t get to stay at nice hotels. You won’t get to go on spontaneous trips to Puerto Rico like me. Do you know how much a $200 bottle of wine costs? It costs two hundred dollars.” (My favorite line of the night – thanks for spelling that out for me, sir).

“I don’t care about those things. I would rather be happy and content in the work that I’m doing.”

“But you’ll never be successful that way.”

“I think we have two very different ideas of success.”

“Nope – everyone wants money. That’s the definition of success. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

At this point my voice is raised and my friends return to find us fighting, which is very unlike the amiable personality I typically embody. Sensing the shifting dynamic with the addition of moral support on my side, he finishes up the conversation by coming over to my chair, touching my shoulder, and providing what appeared to be his closing remarks.

“I’ll tell you what I tell my kids in college. If the professor asks a question and you know the answer they’re looking for but have a different idea, always tell them what they want to hear. It’s more important to get an A than to follow your ideas and get a C. That’s the way to be successful. Oh…and one last thing – it’s called going to work for a reason. It’s not called going to follow your dreams. It’s not called going to pursue your passions. It’s called going to work. Because that’s what you do. You work. You don’t follow your dreams.”

“I choose to believe you can do both!” I shout as he walks away.

There ends my first fight with a stranger. Thankfully, not even this rude man could ruin our joyous time celebrating dear friends, feasting on Puerto Rican food, enjoying the salty ocean water, and exploring the neighborhoods of San Juan. The next day, while lounging on the local beach in Ocean Park, I came across words of truth in a poem by Pablo Neruda. I vowed to read it to him if we ever crossed paths again.

Emerging

A man says yes without knowing
how to decide even what the question is,
and is caught up, and then is carried along
and never again escapes from his own cocoon;
and that’s how we are, forever falling
into the deep well of other beings;
and one thread wraps itself around our necks,
another entwines a foot, and then it is impossible,
impossible to move except in the well –
nobody can rescue us from other people.

It seems as if we don’t know how to speak;
it seems as if there are words which escape,
which are missing, which have gone away and left us
to ourselves, tangled up in snares and threads.

And all at once, that’s it; we no longer know
what it’s all about, but we are deep inside it,
and now we will never see with the same eyes
as once we did when we were children playing.
Now these eyes are closed to us,
Now our hands emerge from different arms.

And therefore when you sleep, you are alone in your dreaming,
and running freely through the corridors
of one dream only, which belongs to you.
Oh never let them come to steal our dreams,
never let them entwine us in our bed.
Let us hold on to the shadows
to see if, from our own obscurity,
we emerge and grope along the walls,
lie in wait for the light, to capture it,
till, once and for all time,
it becomes our own, the sun of every day.

[Pablo Neruda, Extravagaria]
Some takeaways on our success conversation:
  1. My old self would never engage in such a dispute with anyone: stranger, acquaintance, or friend.
  2. He obviously found my forceful stance challenging. Perhaps it rocked everything he believed to be true? Perhaps he didn’t like my confidence – the assuredness of my response?
  3. Why does society say success is money and status driven? Why must success center around consumerism, materialism, and financial pursuit? Is it not better to wake up each day content and rich in people and place and the work of your hands?

A favorite quote of mine, one that lives in my wallet at all times:

“I don’t fear failure. I fear succeeding at something that doesn’t matter.” [Dan Erickson]

I know this is interpretive. I know we all have different ideas of success (clearly), but if nothing else, this fight with a stranger in paradise helped me define my interpretation. It is acceptable to have differing ideas. But it’s unacceptable to push our idea of success on others, to assume what we want is what everyone else wants, to think everyone is money driven, and to relentlessly follow the pressure of society towards one path, one direction, or one idea without taking time to reassess.

In this new year, find the idea of success that works for you and pursue it. Fight for it. Defend it. And make sure that when you wake up each day, you know what you believe. Live in such a way that when it’s your turn, when you get into a fight with a stranger who’s trying to challenge your idea of success, you can boldly and confidently defend your position. And above all else, don’t think you have to listen to society, history, or rude strangers in paradise – get out there and pursue a success you find worthy of defending.


A few scenes from San Juan:

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Book wall in San Juan
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In the pursuit of reclaiming my life, I've spent the recent months on sabbatical filling my days with thought-provoking words, compelling poems that speak truth into places I was unable to locate, pottery, and the pursuit of wholeness.
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