I read a lot of books in January. It was a meditative month, and I loved it. Frankly, I could spend my entire life doing nothing more than reading and writing, with brief breaks to run and eat, and then back to the thinking, please.
It’s a good thing we have all these kids, I said to Kevin the other night, or I’d be a hermit. I have these ascetic traits that are very hard to shake.
I met with my word-of-the-year friends on Monday evening. I’ve already written about last year’s word: Stretch. I spent most of January quietly testing out the world Welcome. But just before meeting with my friends, I had a last-minute change of heart (this happens every year), and chose instead Success.
I chose this word because it terrifies me. It terrifies me and I believe that it shouldn’t: and I like a challenge. I want to know what it feels like to claim all of the positive aspects of this word while overcoming the negative ones. Since selling Girl Runner this past fall, I’ve found myself cowering from the idea of being successful. I continually frame that good fortune in deliberately distancing terms: it was luck, it was chance, it was a lightning strike, it was like winning the lottery. In other words, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.
You can’t see them, but I’ve started and erased about ten sentences here.
The sentences all have to do with how maybe, maybe I might have had a little something to do with my book’s good fortune. See, I can’t even let myself express this idea out loud. It sounds like bragging, I guess. Caveats flow from me. And I have been fortunate, there is no doubt about it. And lucky. But was it really entirely chance? Was it anything like buying a lottery ticket? Or maybe, maybe does spending half of my life in single-minded pursuit of becoming a good writer account for at least a fraction of this luck and chance?
If I were a man, would I be having this conversation with myself? I genuinely wonder.
And that is why I landed on the word Success. I feel compelled to tuck Welcome into my back pocket for moments when I need a soft place to land, a comforting lens through which to view the decisions I will be making this year. But I know deep inside that it’s Success I need to wrestle with, Success that challenges me, and Success that I hope to step inside and claim.
Two quotations, both attributed to Nelson Mandela, a successful leader if there ever was one, and someone who did not rest on past successes. His humility radiated power.
“There is no passion to be found in playing small–in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
What am I doing, by distancing myself from the challenges and possibilities inherent in taking risks, in claiming responsibility both for my failures and successes? What rooms in my life am I walling off, out of fear and superstition and what is probably, in truth, a false humility?
“I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Success isn’t an endpoint, in other words. A moment of achievement is a moment that should be celebrated, yes. But it’s no place to pack it in. Pause, reflect, breathe, and gather strength in order to carry on with one’s work. The freedom granted me by earning a living from my writing (at least for the next few years), comes with the responsibility to use that freedom well. Not to shrivel up. Not to crumble under the weight of expectation (my own, I mean). Instead, to work with passion, to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and to write and teach with the humble intention of doing good rather than harm.