Success, a Stethoscope and a Track Meet

09/09/2013 11:24 am 11:24:49 | Updated Nov 09, 2013

One of my favorite memories is from a decade ago.

It's early May and I'm at a high-school track meet. The sky is clear and the unshaded track is hot with spring sun and potential. My event, 300-meter hurdles, begins in five minutes. I'm up near the start, stretching my legs, tightening my laces. I look towards the bleachers and spot my mom, two rows from the front. She's holding post-race Gatorade and Advil for my brother and me. There's an open spot next to her saved, but empty. Three minutes until start. I adjust my starting block, edging it closer to the line and compulsively perfecting its position. As I double-knot my racing flats I instinctively look left, towards the entrance of the track. A tall man in a blue polo and grey work pants is running, fast. There's a stethoscope wrapped around his neck.

It's my dad.

He's running his own race -- out of the office to make it to the track in time for my event. Just 17 years old, I never considered what his work day was like. I never considered the patients he had to reschedule or that leaving early meant he had to return to the hospital later in the evening. The only thing I knew was that by the time I took my place at the start, the seat next to my mom would be filled.

I've been thinking about success a lot lately. Watching for examples all around me. What does it look like? What is it worth? At what cost does it come? I've been collecting images and stories and trying to piece together a full portrait of what I want my own success to look like.

American workplace culture tells us that success looks a lot standing atop of a tall ladder, balancing on our paychecks and our perceived power. As best as I can tell, it also looks like tired eyes, sleepless nights, emails on the weekends and a prescription for blood-pressure medication. It looks like leaning in, getting things done and reminding each other just how "slammed" and "crazy busy" we are.

Basic physics tells us that if you lean toward one thing, you're leaning away from something else. More money, less time. More work, less family. More email, less sleep. More meetings, less introspection. A recent article in Harvard Business Review notes that, "The more educated you are, the more likely you are to work long hours." So, more school equals less eventual free time. I've never been good at math, but common sense tells me that the current equation for measurable accomplishment sucks.

In George Saunders' commencement speech for Syracuse University's class of 2013 (if you haven't already, read the whole thing five times -- it's so beautiful), he remarks on the state of modern-day success standards. He says,

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. 'Succeeding,' whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there's the very real danger that "succeeding" will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

And with that, he hits on my greatest fear.

When it comes to climbing that mountain (or proverbial ladder), I don't worry about making it high enough (I was really good at the rope climb in fourth-grade gym class and I've never been afraid of heights). Instead, my fear is that somewhere along the way, the focus on climbing high will overshadow the things that really count. Things like emotional generosity, patience, calm, relationships, real happiness. Things that are easy to overlook, difficult to measure and hard to recover.

I visited an old friend last weekend. On my flight home, I switched from the aisle to an empty window seat. As our plane took off into the sky, I kept my eyes fixed on the ground. I watched all the things that were really big begin to look incredibly small and unimportant as we ascended higher and higher into the clouds. Within minutes, the ground was a thing of the past and I fell quickly asleep.

It's scary to realize how quickly perspective can be lost.

I have it far from figured out. Probably, I never will. But as I attempt to make sense of my own success self-portrait, I'm increasingly aware that success is something we must define -- and redefine -- for ourselves. It might not look like the top of a corporate ladder. It might not look like a big paycheck or a big title. Or maybe it will. But those things aren't the point, anyway.

I hope it looks like well-rested eyes, maintained perspective and enough space to be present with the people that matter most. I hope it looks like leaving the standard measures behind at least long enough to show up, on time, for the things that are really important. Things like running under clear skies, saved seats and long-term memories disguised as just another high-school track meet.

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