Friday, November 18, 2011

A taste of success (or not)

On days like yesterday, I’m not sure how to define success.

I don’t mean success in the macro sense, from the 100,000-foot-view, success in terms of a life or a career. I just mean there are some days when I’m not sure if what I accomplished merits a check in the plus or the minus column.

When I worked in the corporate sector, success on any given day was easy to define. Even in the editorial department, where we weren’t tallying the bottom line on a daily basis, we knew whether we’d met deadlines, created a successful project, planned out a catalog or completed the logistics for a photo shoot.

But these days it’s murkier.

Yesterday I put checkmarks in the plus column, metaphorically speaking, for completing three interviews that I needed to do for an article due today and correcting page proofs for a manuscript that was ready to go to press. Beyond my workload, I packed well-balanced lunches for both kids, got Holly to the bus on time, and even remembered to write a note giving Holly permission to go to art club after school.

On the minus side? I meant to clean the kids’ bathrooms and didn’t get to it. I didn’t make any progress on the website I’m supposed to be starting up for Tim’s class play. I forgot to stop at the post office.

Making a dinner that everyone likes counts in the success column, but neglecting to wash the breakfast dishes until after sunset earns a minus. Getting a good assignment from an editor gains another success sign; writing what feels like a weak lead paragraph for that same assignment, not so much.

Trivial, yes, but these are the metrics that often make up my days. And sometimes, they carry even less import than remembering to stop to buy milk before we run out, but I judge them nonetheless: for example, yesterday I called for Rick to pluck a tick off Holly’s arm rather than mustering the bravery to do it myself. Fail!

I suppose it’s inevitable that if I look this closely at this many details, there will be plenty of marks in each column. In the corporate sector, it’s more black-and-white. A project executed on time and under budget is a success. The opposite kind of project is no success at all. These days, I judge myself not on large-scale projects but on dozens of tiny actions that make up the day.

And ultimately? It’s a matter of perspective, of course. I remind myself that if I didn’t hurt anyone or damage any property, it’s probably fair to count the day as a success, at least on balance. And the most conspicuous measure of success sometimes feels like the one that comes after the rest of the day is over: whether or not I’m able to get more than six hours of sleep. Waking up well-rested and ready to start a new day? Definitely, success.

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