How Did I Get Here?
At the age of fifty or thereabouts, a lot of us are not where we want to be, or at least where we once thought we would want to be by this time in our lives – professionally, emotionally, spiritually, artistically or philosophically – whatever our ambitions for ourselves once entailed. This isn't necessarily about money or professional success; perhaps we thought advancing age would make us or help us to be more mature, or more generous, or more tolerant, or more truthful, or more serene, but it hasn't. Most of us get past this disappointment by joking about lowered expectations, and even if it hurts to say it out loud it's a wise thing to take lightly because the fact is that success of any kind, in any arena, is by its very nature a minority status. If more people succeeded at what they do than failed, the very nature of success would be altered because it would no longer enjoy the elite cachet that makes it desirable. To put it at its crudest, if success is to have any meaning, more people have to lose than win. That is true even if your idea of success is abstract in the extreme. The spectrum of success for a writer, for instance, can range from composing the perfect quatrain that few but her peers will ever read, to making millions churning out romance or thriller series. A chef can aspire equally to prepare the perfect roast chicken or to found an international archipelago of branded restaurants. A businessman can be optimally successful keeping his family hardware store relevant and afloat for another generation, or running a hedge fund worth tens of billions of dollars. I take it as given that it is just as difficult to succeed at quatrains, roast chicken and hardware as at anything else, so the truth remains that it is inevitable that most people will not succeed, or succeed to their own satisfaction, at whatever it is they turn their hand to.
As a result, not caring to define ourselves exclusively as the sum total of our achievements, and hoping without much empirical proof that there is an inner core within us that remains constant and independent – like the molten heart of a planet that churns on regardless of what mountain ranges, oceans or tropical forests cling to the surface – most of us learn to live with and make light of our disappointments. We tell ourselves precisely this: that many, many people – the vast majority, in fact – are able to go on to lead happy, balanced, productive lives after they have faced and accepted the reality that their dreams are not likely to come true and that clinging to their frustrated ambitions is ultimately a self-defeating and fruitless martyrdom. We strive to persuade ourselves that who we are is separate and distinct from what we have achieved, even though we have been schooled since birth to understand that that is not how the world works, since every single protagonist on the world stage who has made it into the history books or the literary cannon, or onto the walls of the great museums, or has had a dinosaur or a hospital or a hedge fund or a peninsula or a weapon named after her, has done so on the basis of her achievements and, more important still, of her success in getting the world to recognize those achievements. It's hard work, letting go of all that, dissociating our selves from our work and our status, and many of us are only partially successful at it, but it's the wise thing to do if we want to be happy-ish, and most of us can get it right to a certain extent. Many of us never wanted that much to begin with – or at least, never wanted it all – and maybe it's a little easier for that way, but surely almost all of us have wanted at one time or another to hang some tinselly achievement great or small to the Christmas tree of our identity, and have failed in our attempts to do so. It shouldn't be a big deal, since it's such a common, uniting experience, yet it usually is. We can't even bear to picture our maidenly egos alone in the room with the lecher Failure, let alone see them wedded to one another, but we have to learn to live with it if we don't wish to walk around exuding the acrid stench of bitterness.