Do, or Do Not: Rethinking Success

Woman with a hand on a window, having written "onwards" in the condensation.

Photo by Harry Renton on Unsplash

“Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
– Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Ms. Kia Hurtley, my 10th and 11th grade English teacher, filled her room with famous and inspiring quotes. Quotes written on the chalkboard, hand-painted on paper around the room, and on posters. One I often stared at was titled, “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Star Wars.” Yoda’s sage advice about doing or not doing was the first life lesson listed. I thought it was quaint. I loved Star Wars and chuckled at the “wisdom” dispensed by a swamp-dwelling muppet. It has taken me almost 20 years to learn my lesson.

I have believed in many lies in my life. One of the most pervasive and popular lies is “success and fame will bring fullness, joy, and contentment.” Success is measured by volume of what is made and consumed by others, or how much one can earn. Fame is measured by name and face recognition by the wider public. Being successful and famous, I am told, is all I need to rid myself of the daily demons of doubt and self-loathing. Like most good Americans, I have internalized this messianic metric and apply it to every aspect of my life. Am I doing enough at my work to be considered successful? Have I earned enough from my drawings and illustrations to enjoy a measure of fame? Am I doing enough of the right kind of spiritual, physical, and mental practices? Am I trying hard enough?

My favorite poser in Ms. Hurtley’s class.

A second, partnering lie to the first is a double-edged one I have been fed ad nauseum by my culture, “fame and success will come suddenly from minimal effort and serendipity;” and, “fame and success will come from failing again and again and trying harder each time.” These lies are based on half-truths. Sure, overnight successes happen.  Yes, histories exist of women and men toiling through a series of failures only to finally meet with success. These are not guarantees and often involved other factors than the sheer grit of the individual. As the punk band Mission of Burma sang in the 80’s, “Fame and fortune is a stupid game, and fame and fortune is the game I play.”

My writing and creative work have needlessly suffered under these lies. I wonder if they have for you too, reader. I keep trying. I keep chasing after that wind of success and fame. I keep hoping if I try harder, try to get connected to the right people, try to have my work exposed to more eyes, try to write what I think people want to hear, then and only then will I taste the sweetness of the fame and fortune dream.

Of course, that dream is a nightmare. The striving after it is a lie. The messiah of meaning to be found in success and fame is false. I am not the first to understand there is no real salvation in material wealth or social standing. Wisdom literature around the world speaks to the emptiness of success as I have been taught to measure it.

“Great trouble comes from not knowing what is enough. Great conflict arises from wanting too much. When we know when enough is enough, there will always be enough.”
– Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching 46

“‘Everything is meaningless,’ says the teacher, ‘completely meaningless.’ …’So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless – like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.’”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 2:9-11

The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth
you have given away.” – Marcus Aurelius

Which brings me to Yoda. I have seen my “work” in terms of trying – of chasing the wind. If a post doesn’t get shared enough, I haven’t tried hard enough. If there aren’t likes beyond my friends and family, I have failed. I am not doing. I am trying. I am striving after something I can never hold. Like Luke Skywalker, I think the answer is in the effort, not the decision to begin.

However.

What if I rethink the goal? What if we all did? Maybe the writing, the cartooning, the creating is an end in itself? Perhaps being truthful to myself in all I do is success. Perhaps reaching one or two people with my work, regardless of their connection to me, that is fame. The work of writing is begun and accomplished in the doing. Material wealth, financial excess, celebrity, these cannot rid me of my demons. As Jim Carrey said, “I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

From this day on, I have chosen to do. To write as often as I can. To publish and share these jots and jabbers with the world. Not as an offering of one with all the answers, but as bread crumbs of truth along the path. Mostly written for myself, with the hope to find sisters and brothers along the way. Walk with me, won’t you?

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