Success is a Dangerous Word
Success is a dangerous word. People don't quite know how to measure it, yet everyone has applied their own value to what it means to be successful and often times they allow no room for someone else's interpretation to form any contradiction of their conclusion about success. But the one thing that everyone has in common is that everyone wants to be what they would call 'successful.' Prior to writing this blog, I did a google search on the word 'successful'. I'm not sure how recently, but google has done this wonderful thing now where when you are looking for general information, instead of only providing links to where you can get your information they now provide what may be the answer to your question right at the top of the list. So naturally, they brought up the definition of 'successful'. I was not surprised that they brought up two definitions of this word, however I was intrigued out how conflicting they were. The first said 'accomplishing an aim or a purpose.' while the second read 'having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction.' It shouldn't be too alarming - the differences between these two definitions - as many words have different meanings in different contexts, but I am more interested in the way these definitions have been adopted as an absolute and uncompromising meaning in our society. My interest in this topic has swelled for many years, but I felt appropriate to write a blog about it after reading a blog entry by fellow MSU Graduate student, Ashlee Busch, who has now received her masters degree. The full blog can be read here, but it was particularly her closing statement that I found most important. "The piece of paper (her masters diploma) means one thing - social and textual success in a very expensive and traditional learning environment. And that absolutely IS success and should be recognized. But by God in Heaven, it is not the only one." Busch writes. This his reminded me of a discussion I had with my older brother, Paul, at an Applebee's in Lexington, Ky regarding my impending choice to return to academia after failing pretty hard so many years ago. Paul has claimed to be a great admirer of my talent for writing music, despite the fact we are both heavily invested in completely different genres. Paul is a popular local guitarist who plays mostly classic rock tunes and spends his days teaching young aspiring students. He has recently moved to Chicago to start a branch of a well-known academy for guitar, which in his mind - and mine - is successful. So when we were having this discussion, it is very possible I misunderstood him at the time - but I felt as though he was questioning my value on the necessity of academia for me to become successful in my own world. I can't fault him for being curious, and I never once felt like he was demeaning what I did. But I think the confusion stemmed from the fact that he was finding success without the need of a piece of paper declaring his qualifications and was wanting to understand what made that more difficult for me and my field. What I wish I had explained to him at the time that I wasn't seeking the 'piece of paper', or the knowledge from the classes. I was trying to find some sort of sense of self-accomplishment in my music, and after being ignored so many times when trying to contact band and orchestra directors all around the Kentuckiana, the feeling of my own worth was fading. I needed to put myself back in the game directly, and the only way I could do that was by merging onto the high-speeding academic highway. I did receive my diploma and it sits above my bed proudly. But don't be fooled by thinking it is merely a literal result of me going to class every day and walking down that aisle when the time came. It is a symbol that I can accomplish anything if I am willing to work for it.
That symbol is shared with several other 'successes' I had found in life, many having nothing to do with music. And this aligns with another troubling hindrance to the word success: the fact that we, as a society, often times take important successes for granted. As I mentioned, my diploma sits high above the headboard of my bed, but its also not the first plaque I see when I wake up in the morning. Across from the side of where I sleep is a wall of my awards, notably the awards I got while spending my summers (and some months in fall and winter) at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. Believe it or not, someone once had the audacity to tell me that those awards didn't really matter because it was a 'play job' and now I was working towards REAL success. I was very appalled by that notion, and strongly disagreed. However, this was REALLY brought to light when I applied for a full-time job with an electronics conglomerate and was told during my interview that because of my strong resume, which had very little to do with music, I would be given a better offer than was traditional for external hires. It was then that I realized that all of my hard work in non-musical fields, climbing company ladders time and time again, was not for nothing. I had found success through what I was doing at the time, and with how difficult the job market is in my chosen field, it my save my life. Look, the point of this is not to brag about my own success and to say to everyone 'hey look at me!' My successes came out of many failures. What I am trying to say is that we should be respectful of those who consider themselves to be successful, even if we don't fully understand what they do. Little accomplishments matter and should not be taken for granted. If you win $10 in an art fair and receive a paper certificate that was made in five minutes from a a home PC, post that damn thing on the fridge! We can't all be rich and famous, but we can all be successful at what we do if we are willing to work for it. Success is a dangerous word, but only if you let it be.