I’ve been reading a biography of Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, over the past several weeks and the perspective it’s provided has been immense. Truman was a simple man, raised in Independence, Missouri in a pioneer family. He never attended college, spent years as a farmer, enlisted to serve in World War I, and never made a fortune. His only attempt to start a business ended in failure and saddled him with debt for years. Public office was a chance to enact true change in his community, from Independence to Kansas City to the United States, when he became Senator in 1936. He was a public servant in all the best ways: rigorous, fair, non-partisan. He would never be known for his speeches and constantly struggled with finances, even upon entering the White House following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1944. He also made the call on two of the biggest decisions in history, dropping the atomic bombs on Japan.
In quiet moments, I view Harry Truman as a resoundingly successful man. He stuck to his values, often in the face of difficulty, from financial hardship to criticism in the press to the years long courtship of his wife. He represents the greatest of America, hard working to his core and optimistic that the world can be better. I would love to believe I pursue that definition of success myself, but a small amount of reflection proves otherwise. I don’t overtly covet money, fame, or power, yet I can see how frequently those things charge up my emotions. I’m glad that I’m at least aware when I get caught up. My phone and browser contain a maze of blocked sites and shortcuts to push me toward the gritty work I admire. ‘Writing’ has sat on my to-do list for years, obviously pointing toward my appreciation for a well formed thought, even if it’s been months since I’ve put hand to keyboard.
This morning, I opened up Medium to see if I’ll be able to publish my writing without a premium subscription. The first page hit me the way every website hits me lately, a list of articles that will teach me how to be better, happier, and more successful. Habits to be more productive, stories of entrepreneurs building a six figure business, routines for relaxing my mind. My Twitter feed is littered with the same self-help threads and I can’t step on LinkedIn without being inundated by the congratulations and back-patting everyone seems to be giving and taking.
It’s a bit of a dilemma, several of the most important books I’ve read have been around this theme. Improve yourself, on all levels. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve worked through these, grown beyond them, but these days the articles, threads, and comments seem to only be informing me of what I need to change. Obviously, I haven’t figured it all out, and my introduction to the philosophies of certain writers and thinkers was undoubtedly strengthened by articles just like these. Yet I’m struck how, regardless of my intentions to live according to my own measures of success, working hard, being a good father, husband, and friend, improving the world for others, I still get caught in rumination after seeing tips for the optimal morning routine, or the huge funding round that a distant connection just got at their company. I actively know these are not how I measure success, but envy is cruel.
Lately, I’ve begun to see the systematic way we worship these so-called successes differently. Struggling shop owners, hopeful immigrants, inspiring stories of the less fortunate clawing and fighting to create a comfortable life are barely a sideshow to the billionaires and famous names that take up every square inch of media. There’s interest in the exceptional, but exceptionalism needn’t be the ideal.
For years, a couple thoughts have repeatedly returned to bring me back to baseline. First, confirming when my happiest moments have been. It’s the early mornings when I’m deep in thought, whether building a project, exploring my mind through writing, or reading anything from Truman to Crime and Punishment to Frankenstein. I love walking outside with people I love or alone, fascinated and engaged in the world. I love the busy rush hour, listening to jazz while reading on the Tube and switching to a high energy beat for my climb up the giant escalators and the weave among Londoners. It’s the flow of life, the living. And the variation, both my own and the world’s, is magnificent. When I’m caught up, a reminder of the bliss in these moments is the surest way for me to realign, even though I’m nearly certain I’ll return to envy later.
Second, I remind myself of who I view as successful, and specifically the actions and traits that make them that way. It’s never been the success of my dad’s business that I admire, but the time he’s always taken to speak with my friends and build his own opinion despite the rumors and stories. People are complex. I think of people who disengage from the rat race, appreciating the mind, or their love for people. We have so many choices for what to worship, defined by our actions not high minded ideals we see on the internet.
In David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement speech, he hammers home the value of our ability to choose what we think about.
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
The world has decided what they think we should worship. Moving through the trenches, the struggle is to chart my own course. If I don’t choose what matters to me, someone else will.