Success. Definitions and guides have filled pages after pages of books about what it is and how to achieve it. The really blatant ones will tell you that wealth is success. The logic is almost flawless. How can you be successful and still be swarmed with worries about money matters? So success is acquired wealth. But most books will be more discreet. They are mostly how-to books and they start with the author's memoir. He or she is usually fabulously wealthy or eminently well-off and has scores of accolades and awards to boot. It is often a rags-to-riches story with a happy-ever-after ending.
These books will wax lyrical about the generic principles of success with supporting personal anecdotes to fill up the pages. Others will give you a step-by-step, almost formulaic account of how to make it big or have your own breakthroughs in life. Of course these authors are highly acclaimed and are an inspiration to many. Testimonies abound from readers whose life have been transformed by their books and inspiring life.
My point here is not so much about the effectiveness of the principles spelt out in the books. I have no qualms about them. My point is about ”lowering" the bar for success (for lack of a better word). I desire for success to be more context-sensitive or more grass-root to the particularity. Here is what I mean.
Success is usually defined as cultivating the right attitude towards life. This would require an examined life. This is foundational. Change always starts with ourselves. Here is where catchphrases like vision, wisdom, relationship, community, charity and contentment come into play, in varying mix and substance. Again I have no issue with writing about how planning and vision are the essential steps to success. Neither are my feathers ruffled by chapters on building relationships and being contented as the touchstone of success. And of course, giving of yourself and your time and resources to a good cause is another theme of success that most authors are diligently advocating (because there is no better emblem of true success than someone who is giving back to society).
But I am more thinking about success for the common folks. That is, success unplugged and separated from the highly celebrated and visible successes of people we know who get to write about it. I trust that the majority may not get to see the much-celebrated summit of fame and wealth or fruits of one’s labor in their lifetime. Scores of books can be written about this kind of world-recognized success and the silent majority would be chugging along life’s rough terrains unnoticed and unknown. In other words, the success I have in mind is a kind that is more context-specific and layered.
Imagine a middle-income husband trying to make ends meet with three young children, one of whom is severely autistic or a retiree who is living in a 3-room HDB flat with children all married off and is struggling to take care of his terminally-ill wife. Or a student whose parents are divorced being bullied and taunted in school for it. Or lastly, a single mother working two shifts to take care of her young daughter because her husband decided to walk out on them to be with his younger secretary. I wonder what does success mean to them?
Most of them will not be wealthy, famous, or immortalized in books for all to read. They will most likely die unknown, be struggling to make out a decent living, and be hoping that society would show them some leeway and mercy along the way. What is success to them then? Is success about having a vision and a master plan when the furthest they can see is tomorrow and maybe to the financial worry lurking at end of the week? Is success a peace of mind when every day is a struggle to keep up with payments, worry about their children's well-being, and hope for a better tomorrow? Is success about giving back to society when they have nothing much leftover and they are currently giving their life and everything for their loved ones leaving nothing for themselves (does all that count)?
I would like to believe that they are successful too; albeit not in the way the world would like to define it. I would like to believe that success for them is more nuanced and rewarding in the little precious moments of victory they feel in their daily struggles. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine again the same husband returning home to play with his autistic child and discover that he could respond positively and in return, throw himself at his father in a tight embrace. Imagine further the retiree, who is taking care of his fatally ill wife, sharing a romantic moment with her in a home-cooked candlelight dinner and they couldn't stop giggling as they walk down memory lane. Imagine with me the bullied boy finding a close buddy whom he can share many playground adventures with. And the wife, whom her husband had abandoned, shedding tears of joy as her daughter whispers into her ears that she had finally secured the scholarship.
These are personally enriching moments of life for them and there can be no greater feeling of success. Now let's be clear that these moments are not publicly celebrated ones like a Grammy event or a Miss Universe contest. Neither are they events akin to scoring a killing in the stock market or having your foot and hand cemented on the Hollywood walk of fame.
And yet, for all their struggles to make ends meet, these moments mean much more. Despite the struggles they all have to go through daily, they nevertheless persevered. And these moments are like little blessings that angels faithfully plant for them. I know the naysayers may argue that such is not exactly success as success is normally understood. They may say, "Where is the wealth and worldwide influence?", "Where is the accolades?", "Where is the rags-to-riches story?" Well, while I can't fault them on this, my point here is to highlight the extraordinariness in an ordinary life. There may never be a rags-to-riches story for them but there is surely a rags-to-resilience one.
You see, most of them will not have an ivory league school education or receive a series of fast-track promotions to run big corporations or win an internationally coveted prize or be wealthy and engage in worldwide philanthropy. That's their unembellished reality, unglamorous and all.
Nevertheless, I see it differently. Although most will die largely anonymous with only their loved ones and friends to commemorate a life well-lived, they are still successful in my book because they have led a consistent, faithful and fruitful life. Their struggle in their own way is a struggle no different from those successful people whom we get to read about.
But the essence of their spirit is no less admirable and I stand in awe of their overcoming struggles to stand firm against all odds till the very end. And as a tribute here, I want to celebrate their silent but enduring successes as I see it and I believe the world is better off and brighter because of their collective intrepid lives to confront failure in the face and walk through it in quiet resolve and hope. In fact there is no greater success story than the success of an ordinary life overcoming extraordinary odds. That's radical living. That's success with an attitude. The right attitude. Cheerz.