“What is success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
I learned the above quotation from an important educator in my life, the headmaster at a private school called Roycemore that I attended from sixth through twelfth grade outside of Chicago. He always used to preface an annual award with this quotation. I’d like to think that it embodies what I hope to have achieved at this point in my life.
However, as with any comparable quotation or sound bite, it inevitably overlooks the process of getting to success. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is to take joy and have gratitude for the process of getting to an achievement, not just the result—to see that process as an achievement in itself. And Ralph Waldo Emerson surely knew that winning the respect of intelligent people and so forth takes work.
I’m not claiming that financial wealth is always achieved by work; in fact, it isn’t. But with my story, I know that in my experience, to feel like I’m worth anything and that I’ve succeeded takes a lot of work to go against a larger culture that told me that I was nothing.
In many ways, I am extremely lucky: I was born white, male, and middle-class in a society that rewards people for fitting norms that such people often determine. However, I always knew that I was different, and early on, I was violent, and with my antisocial tendencies, it was evident that I was Autistic. At ten, I was suicidal, and I later found out that how I was treated at school and elsewhere triggered major eating disorders for people close to me. That hurts to remember, but it is part of my story that I should never forget.
When I got to college, though, so much changed. I came out as gay during the orientation for freshman orientation, and unlike my experiences in middle and high school, I was received with open arms. To be honest, it was really fucking brave, as was when I wrote a song that year about my Autism that includes the line, “Like some people said that they knew I was gay for years.” Every time I sing that song in public, I persist and sing it regardless of the fear and the metaphorical knots in my stomach.
And the difference with college wasn’t just how others received me, though that does matter: hundreds of people ending up standing up and cheering for me when I walked at graduation in 2010. I showed up differently. I made a conscious choice when I went to college to not treat people the way that I was treated growing up. And I got more friends than I ever thought possible.
But it was because I persisted that I received that much love, in more ways than one. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have deserved it had I not persisted; I just know that had I given up, I would never have come this far and earned the appreciation of honest critics and endured the betrayal of false friends.
After college, I struggled for years to find a path, but I eventually got into graduate school and today work as a writing tutor with my Master’s in English. I often am surprised that someone as literal as I am, with my Autism, can have two degrees focused on literature. The fact is, I learned how to write a lot better because of my college English professors, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude, but the willingness to continually hone my craft came from a persistent drive to succeed.
Part of my persistence comes from the simultaneous blessing and curse that I’m never satisfied with my life. I continually focus on growth, though sometimes that can lead to greater materialism—wanting to own more “stuff”—but these days, I’m also working on pushing back against those tendencies.
So, persistence defines success for me. I didn’t give up, though there are numerous times when I came close. A relative called me the most persistent person that he’s ever known, and whether or not that that’s true, I feel honored that people look to me as an example to help them get through their day. I don’t deny my privilege for a second, but I also don’t deny how rough it has been at times. However, I’ve learned to have gratitude for my Autism, and maybe one day, I’ll be more unequivocally grateful for my sexuality.
I also define the success of persistent action as persistent questioning of society. The people that I admire the most are those that go against the metaphorical grain of society. They question the cruelty of everyday life and try to do something, however small, about that cruelty. If one life breathes easier because of such people, then they have most definitely succeeded.
So, I hope to continue to succeed: questioning, winning tangible rewards (including for my writing), but more importantly, learning both to humbly give back and to receive the world’s gifts with dignity and grace. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in the last few years is the importance of being of service to others. I want to practice solid self-care, but I also want to simultaneously be useful to other people and to the planet.
I began with a quotation about defining success, and I want to end with a couple about persistence. Ian Carr, a biographer of jazz music giant Miles Davis, once said something in a documentary like, “People say that Miles never looked back, but the thing is, anyone that doesn’t look back is an idiot. So, Miles often looked back, but he alwaysmoved forward.” I may often look back, but I want to always move forward. I don’t ever want to give up.
And as Paul Simon once wrote, the fighter still remains.