I suppose I’ve had some career success. But I would know this only because every so often I am told so. Be it in the form of a question asked in an interview or an email query from a blog fan.
“Doug,” they usually begin, “as a successful writer, what do you think blah blah blah (sub in your qualifier-following question right here).”
Yet the word itself—success—tends to miss me or fail to penetrate my armor. Either that or it glances off me as if I were dipped in Teflon. And it’s not that I’m immune. I understand the meaning of the word and even the context with which it’s often used. I merely can’t seem to relate.
I recall a conversation years back with a radio interviewer where he referred to me as a Hollywood success story.
“Whatever that is,” I joked.
“Well, you are,” he insisted. “You’ve written big big movies.”
“Yes,” I answered. “But you could describe Barry Levinson or Lawrence Kasdan as Hollywood success stories. Right?”
“I would argue that compared to them, my career is a pimple. On paper, I look more like a dilettante.”
“Well, there are different levels of success,” he managed.
“Understatement,” I argued.
“Then how do you define success?” he followed up.
It was part of the pre-interview so there’s no recording of my answer. Yet if there was, I’m sure it would’ve been mushy and formless and possibly even incoherent. That would be because I’ve never had a qualified answer on the issue. I just knew that, in my mind, I wasn’t a success and still might not be to this very day.
That’s right. I don’t know what success is but I sure as hell can tell you it’s not the guy staring back in the mirror.
“Then if you’re not successful then what are you?” asked a baseball dad with whom I was sharing the shade of an oak tree hanging over some bleacher. We were watching our sons’ travel ball team performing infield drills and using our Blackberry’s to pretend that we were still at the office.
What am I?
For a moment, I pondered as if it were an existential challenge. Then when I realized my fat head was, once again, getting in the way of answering a simple and sincere question, I had this bell-ringing moment of clarity.
“I’d like to think I’m accomplished,” I answered. Then I had to clarify myself. “Or accomplishing things in this life.”
“Isn’t that the same as success?” he asked.
“I can’t quantify success. But I can look back on what I’ve accomplished.”
“So can everybody.”
“And that makes sense to me,” I said.
I think I went on to describe what I did as no different than that of a building contractor or an architect. After the schematics, an actual product had been erected. Yet be it concrete or brick and mortar or celluloid or pages bound into a hardcover book, each bore a physicality that was undeniable. It was there. Finished for consumption. Ready to be judged on its merits.
Now to you it may appear that I’m splitting hairs. Parsing words. And who cares or why it should matter to anyone other than me? To which I would reply, “Good point.”
This brings me back to a movie moment I’ll never forget. And no. It’s not about a particular movie or even a moment within a movie. It was a movie theater. As I am oft to do, I’ll spend my lunch break parked in a local movie house, catching up on a recent flick. This is work time for me. The War Department knows not to disturb me unless it’s an emergency.
We were in the middle of a major home remodel. The War Department had left on an errand and returned to discover the mason and his crew had begun laying our handpicked tile in a pattern that better suited their taste than the style directed by their employer—ergo me. I cut out of the movie and raced home in hopes of arriving before the cement had hardened.
As a writer, I’m used to unstitching my work and sometimes weaving it back together in a way that better serves the final product. Even if it’s time-consuming and uncomfortable, best efforts are required. I was preparing such a speech for the tile mason, only to discover it wasn’t at all necessary. And though they had another job the next day, upon realizing his error, he set his crew about rescuing the already cemented tiles and prepared fresh mud to begin anew. In grateful return, I ordered pizza and beer and prepared for all of us to stay late.
Now you ask what the hell does this have to do with success or accomplishment?
As I helped rig lights in order for the crew to work into the evening, the tile mason and I traded stories. His tale was about the son of tile mason. As a boy, he’d learned the trade during summers toiling alongside his old man—an immigrant from the Baltics who’d moved to America to give his family a better life. The boy excelled in school, earned college scholarships, and became an aeronautical engineer for the likes of Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. A true red, white, and blue success, especially when viewed through his father’s eyes. But the engineer, who was earning a six-figure income and was on a stellar career trajectory, felt like a cog in a very big machine. He missed the simplicity and sense of daily accomplishment he’d recalled from those hot summers in his father’s employ. Soon, he began accepting weekend gigs. A quick countertop job. A bathroom floor to knockout. It felt so damn right.
Thusly, the tile mason chucked his tony engineering degrees and returned to the satisfying career of the sweaty artisan.
“How many jobs can you sit back and, at the end of the day, look at what you’ve done and know it was good?” he asked after popping the top off another cold one.
“What’s your pops think about your choice?” I asked.
“He jokes about all the money he spent for me to go to college,” said the tile mason. “He wanted me to be a certain kind of success. But he’s happy that I’m happy. And he sure as hell understands what I love about doing this job.”
Success. I wonder if too often we see it as a destination instead of what it should be: a journey.
Until I get there—if there is a there—I prefer to stick to feeling good about what I’ve done while looking ahead to see what I can accomplish next.