My seventh birthday found my ass sitting squarely in the principal’s office, tennis shoes thunk-thunk-thunking on the front of his desk that I now know came from a mail order catalog, but at the time, was convinced had been carved by a blind artisan and imported from somewhere in Italy.
Long story less long, I’d tackled a boy on the playground, punched him square in the arm and then ran away and cried incoherent, snotty tears in the tire swing. He’d made fun of my favorite sweater, a knee-length beauty that was fuchsia with lime green trim–though what really made it special were the crocheted flowers that literally hung down on 3-inch strings of yarn around the bottom.
It was a weird choice for seven year-old Jessica, (the sweater, not the punching), but when I saw it for $0.75 at Goodwill, I knew I had to have it. So twice a week, I’d wake up twenty minutes early, take my flower sweater out of the dryer, and spend an episode of Power Rangers delicately untangling the dangling adornments.
And no one–NO ONE–was going to ridicule my favorite clothing choice.
But sitting in that principal’s office, watching the back of my shoes light up with each kick and staring very intently at the freckle on my pointer finger, I was waiting for my parents to come pick me up, whisk me home, and lock me away forever in a tower, (not unlike Rapunzel), as punishment.
The time ticked and tocked on by, and finally the principal looked up from the stack of papers he’d been shuffling and reshuffling, cleared the layer of settled phlegm out of his throat by taking a sip of his lukewarm coffee that was nearly white from so much powdered creamer, and leaned back in his plastic desk chair.
“You have a bright future in front of you,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“I guess,” I mumbled noncommittally.
He steepled his fingers, and I tried not to stare at how yellow his nails were.
“You can be anything you want to be when you grow up. But not if you keep punching kids.”
This was a legitimate point, and I shrugged, fingering the fray of the ugliest and most worn flower on my sweater.
“What do you want be?” he asked, his eyebrows raised pleasantly.
And I looked up just long enough to stare into his watery blue eyes, clasp my seven year-old hands in my seven year-old lap, and say clearly:
Because success to me has always looked like perfectly-tailored skirt suits. It has looked like embossed business cards in a slim metal case, an office with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a large desk that comes from a mail order catalog, but gives kids the impression it was hand carved by a blind artisan and shipped from somewhere in Italy.
Success has been stilettos that click resolutely on linoleum floors, Skinny Double Shot Sugar Free Vanilla Lattes delivered by an assistant, and conferences in Milwaukee. Interoffice gossip and sex in the fluorescently-lit copy room. I wanted an engraved nameplate hanging outside my closeable door.
Because success, for me, has always been more about how I look, and less about how I feel. More about how I seem, and less about how I’m succeeding. More about the words on a resume and less about the reality of the world.
I had my “real” success. It meant being micromanaged. It meant a sweaty boss telling me my heels made my ass look nice. It meant spreadsheets, and always being too busy, too tired, too mind-numbingly overworked to do anything other than hit the drive through on the way home, eating a drooping burger on my couch while zoning out during a commercial for whatever prescription promised me I could run through fields of wildflowers and have a puppy if only I’d take their pill.
And I was miserable.
But changing careers, packing up my corner office into an embarrassingly small cardboard box with rips in the corners and taking the commuter train home for the very last time was terrifying. Not because I was losing health insurance, or my 401k, or paid vacations.
But because I had to redefine what success meant.
Because I had to admit that I’d been wrong–dead wrong–for decades.
Because I had to rebuild my reality.
Ultimately, I found my answer in Richard Feynman, a longtime idol of mine who is my new complete epitome of success. Known for his work in theoretical physics, (& for being an excellent bongo player), at the end of the day?
He’s someone I want to know.
And that’s a much better measure of personal achievement than business cards and artfully-coiled chignons.
Simply put, success means having the life you’re living shape you into someone you’d want to buy a round of expensive scotch.
As for me? Today I woke with the sun. I ate a snack-sized candy bar before walking along the river and listening to the footfall of runners padding rhythmically by. I showered, dressed for the day in underwear and a tank top, and sat cross-legged on the couch. And with both the curtains and my laptop wide open to the world, I started my work day the same I start all my new work days: by diving in to the projects that matter most to me. It’s officially been a year since I left “success” behind, but this? This feels better than sex on a copy machine.
With that, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Feynman, the man who is single-handedly responsible for redefining my grasp of what it means to be great. It’s for mulling over. For comfort. And for reminding you that as long as you’re living in the best way you know how, you don’t owe anything to anyone.