So the other day I’m sitting around reading the New York Times Magazine, an article about playwright David Henry Hwang. About two-thirds of the way through the piece, the author remarks about Hwang’s father, Henry Yuan Hwang, “After running a laundry and working as an accountant, Henry found success later in life, founding Far East National Bank, the first federally chartered Asian-American bank in the continental United States. (He sold it to the Bank SinoPac of Taiwan in 1996 for $90 million).”
No kidding? He doesn’t find “success” until he founds a $90 million bank, an enterprise (we might note) that was fraught with some questionable dealings.
If you run a small business, you’re not successful.
If you’re an accountant, you’re not successful.
Sets my teeth on edge.
What does it mean to be successful, really? I have to say that my conception of “success” has changed significantly over the years–most radically in recent years. Today, I would posit that once you reach a standard of living that keeps a roof that doesn’t leak over your head and some decent food on your table, “success” has rather little to do with money. As a matter of fact, I don’t see $90 million as an indicator of success at all. Especially not when it involves the possible corruption of the mayor of Los Angeles.
When I was a truly young thing–as in about ten years old–I thought that one day success for me would be to finish the Ph.D. and become a scientist. I wanted to be an astrophysicist.
By the time I reached my freshman year in college, it was clear that family and mentoring support for that scheme would never be forthcoming–in the 1960s, women were still not welcome in the hard sciences, and a girl who said that’s what she wanted to do was regarded as not quite right in the head. So then it seemed to me that success for me would be to get a Ph.D. in anything and have an academic life.
But also I wanted to be a writer with a capital W. I dreamed of writing publishable fiction. Alas, that also was not a very viable option, or at least it wasn’t presented as one. After I began to write for publication (always nonfiction), I imagined that success would be to write something that articulated some grand and profound truth, an Insight with a capital W. And of course to become famous for having done so.
It’s not easy to do that when you’re writing business profiles, travel reports, and cocktail-lounge round-ups. Oh well.
My mother and father felt that success for me would be to marry a man who would earn a good living and support me in the style to which they wished me to become accustomed. So, I married a corporate lawyer, exactly the kind of man they had in mind. Because I was never in love with him (the men who attracted me were not what you’d call good marriage material), that particular “success” was also a shade questionable. But I lived for over 20 years in considerable comfort. I hesitate to use the “bird in a gilded cage” cliché. It was more like Sleeping Beauty: I simply turned off everything around me and existed in a sort of waking coma. To this day, there are things my ex-husband remembers that I have absolutely no recollection of.
Some else’s success is not necessarily your success.
Well, I’ve had the life of a society matron and I’ve had an academic life and I’ve been a widely published writer and I’ve edited even more widely published writers, but I haven’t founded a $90 million bank. Yet.
So what’s success, and how much money does it entail?
Yesterday Cassie and I went for a long walk down a shaded trail that runs through central Phoenix. It was lovely. And I felt truly contented. Not suffering from a lot of pressure to do anything right this minute: success. Not worrying where your next meal is coming from: success. Having enough friends to keep you company but not so many acquaintances to keep up that they run you ragged: success. Having a son whose life, despite a few vicissitudes, has not collapsed in ruins: success. Being comfortable with one’s onliness: success.
I don’t think you have to be a millionaire, let alone a multimillionaire, to qualify as “successful.” Yeah, you do need some money: I have enough to see me through the rest of my life in about the same conditions that I’ve enjoyed for the past three post-layoff years–minimalist, but not without some comforts. The things that are important to me–a pleasant dwelling place, decent food, a few friendships–are in place. I have enough that I don’t need any more. And that, I think, defines financial success.
As for the other kinds of success, the kinds that really matter: each to her own.
How do you define success?