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The Paradox of Success

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I spoke to Pine Street Inn's job training graduates about falling down and getting back up.

Pine Street Inn began serving the homeless in 1969, providing a safe place for 200 men struggling with alcoholism. Today, it's the larget homeless shelter in New England, providing services to 1,300 homeless men and women in Boston each day. Over the course of a year, the Inn serves more than 10,000 homeless people. Pine Street provides permanent housing for about 600 tenants. They also have 700 other beds for emergency and transitional housing. In addition to housing, about 125 men and women participate in the Inn's annual job training programs, which are deisgned to teach various skills to help participants acquire and maintain steady work.

Today, I was the commencement speaker as this year's participants graduated from the job training programs. Here's what I had to say:

* * * * *

President Downie, Board of Directors, Pine Street staff, graduates of the Pine Street Inn job training, graduates with permanent housing, family members, honored Guests:

Today I want to talk to you about success.

We know a lot about failure.

I know a lot about it.

I suspect you do, too.

In fact, failure is pretty much all we hear about in the news these days: murder, financial misdeeds, even a Congressman putting his manhood on Twitter and then lying about it.

But success is actually a much harder thing to define than failure.

I want to ask each of you to think for a moment about how you define success in your life.

To be honest, I have always had a very hard time defining success for myself. I have often been confused about it.

So in recent years I have tried to find people that I felt had succeeded in some profound way and borrowed their definition for a while. They are what I like to call my heroes.

When I was thinking about talking to you about this topic, a line kept coming back to me from the "Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous." It's from a passage that is often called "The Promises," where it talks about the rewards of staying sober as an alcoholic. The line I have always loved and defines a kind of success in life to me is:

"You will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle you."

It seems to me that part of success has to do with overcoming adversity, with coming to an understanding of who you really are, with growing up and experiencing something I call grace -- that miracle when you have literally no idea how something happened, but it did, and you know for sure that it is good.

Our culture too often defines success in a way that just doesn't work.

It's inauthentic at best and leads to disaster at worst.

We live in a culture that tells us it's what you have, not who you are, that counts.

There are many, many examples of people who have succeeded on paper to a huge degree --Tiger, Arnold, Charlie Sheen -- but utterly failed in their lives.

That is the paradox of life: you usually have to fail utterly and completely in order to succeed.

Success, it turns out, is an inside job. You can pretend it's not, but in the end you will fall flat on your face.

I know. There was a day not too long ago that I appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal for having taken my company public and then selling it 90 days later for $2 billion. That very same week I found myself in my car in a church parking lot with nothing but the clothes on my back, alone with the crushing knowledge that I hadn't succeeded at all. Despite what was written in the newspaper headlines, I had failed miserably as a father and a husband. You see, I was a drunk.

I called my mom and then my grandmother.

My grandmother's words at my most desperate hour: "It's not how you fall in life, it's how you pick yourself up." And for the last 15 years, I have tried to do that.

I had a 6-month-old son, Seamus, and 2-year-old daughter, Kerry, at that time. I would never live with them full-time, but I dedicated to being the best father I possibly could be. I got and stayed sober. I showed up for my life.

After doing my best with my kids on my own for five years, I met the woman of my dreams.

On my sixth sober anniversary, Dec. 28, 2002, I married Elena. Then on Valentine's Day 2005 we had my third child, Cole. Kerry is now 17, Seamus is 15, and Cole is 6. Elena and I have been married eight years. I am sober going on 15. I would hate to call myself a success, but suffice it to say that I have much to be grateful for.

But I can still feel that utter despair sitting in that church parking lot like it was yesterday. And I hope I never forget where I came from.

You graduates know that as well as anyone, that to succeed in this world, you have to go through the shadow of death, that moment of truth when you look in the mirror and have no idea who is looking back at you. That moment when you ask yourself:

"What happened to me?"

"Who am I?"

"Is my life still worth living?"

It might be the death of a child, the loss of a job, or the gradual corroding effect of addiction.

But as they say in the big book of AA, "The result was nil until I let go absolutely."

It's that letting go of the outside stuff and working from the inside out that is the key to an honest and successful and happy life.

In my travels I am constantly looking for heroes, men and women who have had the guts to walk through that shadow of death. You can see it in their eyes.

One of my heroes spent 15 years inside Sing Sing before turning his life around. Another risked his life to take pictures of the war in Iraq. Another is an NFL Hall-of-Famer who used karate to keep himself grounded. I learned important lessons from each of my heroes that I carry with me each and every day.

You all are heroes to me. That is why I am here. You inspire me to keep going on my journey even though not every day is easy. Some are still really hard.

Please remember how no matter how much stuff you might accumulate in the days ahead that success is an inside job and involves your soul, not your car or your house.

In my view you have already defined success in your own lives and for me and everyone else here who has had the privilege of witnessing this ceremony.

Congratulations and thank you. Thank you for sharing this day and your success with me.

Read more at The Good Men Project.

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