I have a teacher.
His name is Jim and he came to my commencement. When I first told him that I wanted to study architecture, he told me I am better suited for something else, and taught me modern world history. Four years later, I graduated from college with political science. Yes, he is so spot on.
Like all other good old teachers, Jim likes to encourage and cheer on my work. And like all human beings, I need to hear every once in a while that everything is going to be alright. When I have been unemployed and homeless (from the virtue of graduating), he tells me that I am a go-getter and that I am enterprising. Then, today, he adds that I will be “happily successful.”
Which gets me thinking. This maybe just what I have wanted in life after all. To be happily successful.
Success is hard to define and measure. In conventional terms, success usually connotes a rather public facet and a solid product of tangible, material achievement that can be boiled down as a statement and measured with a yardstick. Let nonprofits be an example. For a nonprofit, this is where hard statistics comes in. For survival, every organization needs to boost of facts and figures, like the number of mosquito nets that get distributed, or the number of participants in a healthy cooking workshop.
Then, there is a softer form of measuring success. For social organizations, anecdotes do the trick. Check out the picture of a credit borrower at Kiva.org website, or a heart-warming story of a happier underdog that Pisgah Legal Services tells to a grant-maker. We need to assess something less official and more human. For individuals, this maybe love, happiness, meaningful fellowships, trust, connection, company, you name it.
Wanting the best of both worlds may seem pretty straight-forward to some, but for others, it’s not at all obvious. Especially, when we are young and full of ambition. We want to advance ahead of our peers, even if they are friends. At this point and time, we have not yet tasted the hard success, which is the focus of our life right now. Most of my friends have dreams of an executive – working for World Bank, getting promoted, taking up prestigious fellowships, eyeing on a large sum of money from an innovation, and making important allies.
At the same time, there is a vague sense of distance and distrust in some quarters. Issues of intimacy maybe the most trite and therefore banal problem of our modern society. Among my Burmese friends, it’s due to accredited wealth, in such a cash-strapped society with various material pressures. They therefore tend to retract into families, which is not a bad thing in itself. Some of these individuals may be socialites, with hundreds of followers and friends, but at a deeper level, they open up and entrust themselves only to a few family members.
Then, my American friends, with American guilt. The United States has a large footprint in the world and the youths feel the shame. The father may own a household name company that makes tools for cutting timber when the student specializes in a discipline that aims to prevent such acts. I knew from growing up in Burma that poverty is difficult, but I hadn’t realized that being so privileged is not easy either.
In the end, when you don’t know who to trust, how much to open up and what to love, it’s also hard to be happy. People my age and folks I know seem to be on the right track to ‘success’ – the hard power, the tangible – but we are so lost on how to be balanced and happy. That is not to say that I don’t know loving, trusting individuals that are also aggressively successful. I mean, look at my lady friends Brianna, Rachel, Amy or Jessie! It’s my belief that there is a way to protect myself and find my way up while being open to meaningful company and trusting relationships. Like Jim says, I aspire to be ‘happily successful’ … not a happy but starving idealist, nor a confused, manipulative careerist. Seeing Jim today was quite nice.