Why is Success a Jalopy?

03/05/2015 10:28 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015
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I used to have a narrow definition of success: professional advancement. Because I had very little of that as a mother and as a writer, I felt like a failure. Now, my definition of success is different. I think of it as a system. And when the system is operating, I feel successful. I feel successful when I'm active in several key areas of importance to me: work, of course; parenting; being a spouse (partner); friendship; community and taking care of myself physically and emotionally. I describe it as keeping the jalopy cranked. That's my metaphor for thriving. Success for me now is a functioning system, and when the system is running, I feel successful.

I know, you think it unflattering to refer to success as a jalopy. It sounds dismissive. It smacks of old-timer, it smacks of outdated. It smacks, indeed, of gentle fun-poking. But it's an image that keeps coming to mind, so I'm running with it. It appeals to me because a jalopy is basic. It's a car at it's most basic. Wheels, engine, chassis -- that's your automotive system. You can make it sleek, you can computerize it, but a car is still wheels, engine and chassis. It's a jalopy. And so is my system.

So what's my system? Well, it's meaningful work; exercise; attention to self-care through meditation or therapy (or possibly facials); it's caring for family and friends, developing community and volunteering. It's a whole approach to living, rather than one narrow aspect of it.

The problem with a jalopy is that it breaks down. From time to time, the system falls apart. A child is sick, or a spouse or a parent. Or me. The work starts to go badly, or an injury prevents exercise. Something punctures a tire, and you have to pull over. Things fail. What I've learned is that these breakdowns are part of the system, too. As long as I take a longer view of the situation, I don't have to say, "Oh, no, a flat tire. Now I have to scrap the whole car." No, I just have to take care of the problem. It can take awhile. I've learned to be patient. As long as I view success as a system, and a system that can get derailed from time to time, I don't lose hope. I don't despair. The Buddhist verse -- or is it a mantra? I don't' know -- helps.

I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot escape growing old.
I am of the nature to be unwell; I cannot escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die; I cannot escape death.

These words help me put that breakdown into perspective. Just as you don't expect an old jalopy to run smoothly,without loosing a fender or needing to be cranked, you don't expect the system to run smoothly, either.

I would say that this attitude is a benefit of growing older. When I was an unhappy child, I saw my life as a trajectory up and out of a dark pit. I was always climbing towards the light, always improving, always expecting life to get better. That meant that if something went wrong, I despaired. If my novel was rejected, this was a major trauma and a sign that things were completely falling apart. Well, maturity teaches that life has those much quoted ups and downs. This idea doesn't have to be a downer. The idea is that overall, you keep on going, keep on fixing the jalopy and cranking it up and moving along the road. That, to me, is success.