Along the Way: 'How Do You Define Success?'

A big question at just the right time

I WAS HAVING COFFEE this morning with a dear friend who’s going through a difficult time at work. In one of those moments that makes you wonder who’s winding the clock of life, my phone buzzed while we were sitting there. It was an email from my old friend Ryan, and all I saw was the subject line: “Success.” 

I waited to read his note until after coffee. Some 17 years ago, Ryan and I were sports writers at “competing” small newspapers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We had about a half-dozen high schools, a Division III university, and a summer baseball league in our coverage area. Somehow in that lava-hot turf war, we became friends. 

We’ve kept in touch, but it’d been a few months since we talked when this curiously timed email arrived. In it, he said he was preparing a speech for the next week. He’s now a project manager for a research firm near Washington, and the speech, he wrote, is titled “How do you define success?” I’ve been a contributor to a publication called SUCCESS magazine, so he turned the question to me: “How do you define success?” I thought of my coffee conversation and typed this. 


Hey, man,

Good to hear from you again. And good timing. Your email came in just as I was thinking about another friend who’s going through one of those rough spells at work. I wish I had better advice.

What a broad question! 

You know, after I left the Shenandoah Valley, my next job was in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I made $22,500 a year—and this was 2005, not a generation ago. The two other sports writers on staff, Travis and Jeff, were in their mid-20s, too. Honestly, we came to Rocky Mount to leave Rocky Mount. We spent our time talking about what life must be like at a “real” newspaper. We griped about our shop and drooled over the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer. What resources they had! Writers who covered only one team and didn’t have to lay out pages or proofread box scores. Talk about living the dream. If we could just get to one of those places! Then we could go somewhere else! 

Travis, Jeff, and I bonded over our desire to part ways. We ate dinner together, went out to cover our games, and came back to help send the final pages to the printer by our 1:30 a.m. deadline. On the best nights, we’d grab the news editors and copy editors and play Wiffle ball in the parking lot until 4 a.m., laughing and joking until almost sunrise. 

We all left there within a year, as intended. Travis eventually landed one of those big-time sports beats covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he now has a New York Times best-selling sports book about baseball. Jeff became one of the most well-known NASCAR writers in the country, with almost 200,000 Twitter followers. He worked for USA Today and now he’s his own media company, with a subscription-based website that’s doing quite well.

Last year, Jeff and I went out to a Charlotte Knights game, and he said something about Rocky Mount that I won’t forget. “I didn’t appreciate it then, but honestly, when I look back it’s probably the best time I’ve ever had in my career.”

What is success? Buddy, I don’t know. On those late nights, it was making good contact on Travis’s curveball. Now, it’s running a tenth-of-a-mile farther than I did last week. Or the sound of a storm door latching shut after I install it myself. Or the morning Laura said yes. 

Last year I wrote a story and no readers yelled at me about it, which these days is a success. But nobody said anything nice, either, so is it a failure? I don’t know. 

College students ask me for advice every now and then, if you can believe it. Maybe that’s success. But hell, last night an editor at a publication I’ve been dying to break into replied to a pitch with the murderous words, “This just isn’t the right fit for us,” and I scanned job boards for a new line of work. 

Maybe it’s beyond work, though. Last month my dad visited and made it the whole weekend without falling while transferring to his wheelchair. That’s a victory. To another person, though, success might be a senior discount on McDonald’s coffee, or a night sleeping on a bench without getting wet, or the last meeting with a parole officer. You get the point.

Maybe success isn’t measured in achievements, or “being happy with who you are,” or any of the clichés in self-help books on this matter. Goals and personal peace are selfish markers, and I don’t mean that to imply selfishness is a bad thing, not at all. Selfishness is the axis of mankind, from cavemen to astronauts to saints on earth. Individual accomplishments bring community accomplishments bring worldwide accomplishments. But all of the accomplishments in the universe may not leave you feeling successful, right? 

I’m rambling here, I know. But the point is, maybe success is a smaller calculation, something more like what Jeff hinted at. Maybe success is having the wherewithal to be grateful at the precise moment you have something to be grateful for. 


Thank you for writing, old friend.


Categories: In Print, The Buzz