I’ll start with the core belief on which this post is predicated: all we can control is doing the right thing to the best of our ability – to a large extent, the specific outcome is out of our hands. As such, when we try to affect positive change, the tangible outcome is an inadequate measure of success. Doing the right thing with commitment, sacrifice and clarity of purpose has an impact that can’t always be seen. This is especially true if we are looking at the short-term outcome and it’s similarly true if we have very specific criteria for success.

That’s all fine and good, but a couple weeks ago Kate and I had dinner with a couple who are foster parents in the midst of a difficult situation. From my view (and given my experiences) I would say they are doing heroic work (both in the general sense and in the more specific aspects of what they’ve done) and we told them that. To them, though, the unharmonious present and uncertain future make the whole thing feel like failure. I offered reassurance that even if the whole thing blows up beyond repair, there is no way in which what they’ve done could be deemed a failure – they’ve loved openly, sacrificed tremendously and taken a risk that too few are willing to take, and the positive reverberations go far beyond what they can see now. The counter-argument was then offered that if even the humblest positive outcomes aren’t reached, how can they deem it to be anything but a failure? What does success mean if it can’t be seen in any measurable way? At that point I had to step back, and since then I have been contemplating whether my philosophy on the subject has intrinsic merit or whether it’s simply a quasi-utopian coping mechanism. The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a point of reference I often use when hashing out a moral conundrum, so what better time to contemplate this than on the holiday set aside to celebrate him?

So here’s the $64,000 question: when you try to do something to make the world a better place, however humble or grandiose the specific goal may be, how do you evaluate whether you succeeded? Is it legitimate or sane to deem someone successful who has failed to meet the tangible objectives of a task? Okay, I guess that’s two questions, sort of – does that make it $128,000?

Let me point out up front a few things that I am not trying to state here. I may believe them, but the “argument” in this post is not based on

1) This is not based on the oft-repeated principle that risk leads to failure which leads to discovery (e.g. all of Edison’s failed inventions). I believe that strongly, but that alone doesn’t make any of those individual failures into successes.

2) I’m not talking about the feel-good notion of taking comfort in “giving it your best shot.” That is a whole ‘nother can of worms (click here if you missed [and are interested in] my post on the topic of “doing your best”) and one I would say is largely irrelevant to this discussion. On a personal, emotional level I put a lot of stock in how people feel, but this is not about self-esteem, this is about efficacy – did you really succeed?

3) Because we’re talking about doing good for the world, personal goals probably don’t count. If your goal is to write a novel or begin an exercise regimen or learn to make homemade eggrolls (yum, eggrolls), this is probably about personal fulfillment and self-actualization. These things are very important, we all need them, and they exercise many of the “muscles” that we use to pursue other goals. But their personal nature also means that we are entitled (obligated, even) to choose our own means of evaluating success.

4) If your goal does intersect with the world outside, but the outcomes are personal, the same is true. If you want to get a job that earns lots of money or get recognition for things you’ve done or woo the hot chick who works at the donut place, there are a lot of external factors but in the end your own needs being met is the basis of evaluating success. No judgment there either, but this doesn’t quite “fit” if the goals are not to impact the world but rather to get the world to conform to our own desires and needs.
After all, the purpose of this discussion is to take it out of the realm of the touchy-feely world of affirmations and such (I “feel” like I succeeded, so that’s all that matters) and look at really affecting positive change in the world outside. And that way you don’t have to be a sensitive guy like me for this outlook to have relevance. So with all that out of the way . . .

When evaluating “success,” there is a sense in which the focus and sincerity of effort leads us to a different and potentially more genuine conclusion than the measurable outcome. This is especially true when looking in the short term without the benefit of greater hindsight. Do you feel more proud of working your butt off and almost but not quite achieving an ambitious goal? Or do you feel better when with minimal effort or by dumb luck you get something you wanted?

This principle can be illustrated with a brief examination of my work with two teenaged students this year. Both students are smart and gifted and expressed significant ambition. And both were attached to short-cuts and resistant to my attempts to draw attention to inconsistencies of word and deed (another topic to be addressed in a future post). In both cases I insisted that it would be completely legitimate to adjust priorities and change their levels of ambition, BUT that their current actions were not consistent with their stated goals. And in both cases, I strongly suspect that I am among the first people (maybe the first) to have challenged them in this way. In one case, I dug in my heels and accepted nothing short of an acknowledgement that this dissonance was unsustainable – if he wanted to learn to play jazz, he needed to practice certain things and there was no loophole. I was subsequently informed by email, mid-semester, that he was switching to classical piano. In the other case, there has been incremental progress, but the shortcuts persist. This student is exceptionally gifted, so he sounds great and continues to get better at the impressive aspects of his playing (most of which fall outside of what I’m trying to teach him), while continuing to neglect certain “holes” that I warn him will bite him in the a** some years down the line. In the meantime he sounds great, and anyone who heard him would wonder who his teacher was and assume that I must then be a great teacher.

I challenged the first student to make a clear-headed choice and he thus opted out of a pursuit to which he wasn’t committed and which was reinforcing a delusional sense that he could just skirt around that. Did I fail? The second student sounds terrific, yet the greatest impact I am having will likely manifest years from now when he hits a wall and remembers my words of warning, hopefully at that point heeding them and filling in those “holes.” In the meantime, should I feel proud and successful because his good playing reflects well on me? Me, I reject that way of thinking. And again, this is not about feeling good about a job well done. This is about trying to measure whether I tangibly succeeded at the task before me. How my students sound is the most obvious yardstick by which to measure my success in teaching applied music, but it seldom feels like the most accurate.

For many of us this evaluation process is complicated and kind of tangled – doing something positive could have any number of intentions behind it, after all. Maybe being charitable is a way to gain attention or to repair a damaged image. Maybe trying to affect change is a way to legitimize a self-serving desire (e.g. a crusade to liberate your town’s citizens from oppressive gun control laws sounds better than “cut me some slack, I like to shoot stuff”). Maybe the cause to which you’re committed is actually based on principles that are questionable in terms of their benefit to the world (e.g. “saving” kids in foster care from the “horror” of being adopted into the loving homes of same-sex couples – boy do I wish I was making that one up).

But it’s not always this ambiguous! I think we can agree that there are certain things that are virtually universally agreed upon as good, positive, necessary, virtuous, and so on. All people have rights. Living in war is bad. Children deserve families, safety and the meeting of basic needs. Sure, plenty of folks deflect responsibility to do anything about these things (e.g. my personal interests are more important and I don’t want to sacrifice for others, especially if I don’t think they deserve what’s rightfully mine) or to even think about them, but I don’t think anyone really debates the these principles on the grounds that they’re true.

Once you’ve been “called” to do something important that impacts other people, it is difficult to turn back mid-stream. And this could be as simple as having kids in the most traditional sense (two parents, stable home and finances, lots of love and attention, planned from the beginning). Many reading this have parented, and the rest of you have at minimum known people who have parented and/or been parented. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and one that revolves around countless subtle, unglamorous actions that are for the greater good of the young person. Whether you are saving the life of a child on the edge or whether you are tending to the needs of a perfect little angel there are a lot of choices to make – and, frankly, we have a lot less control than we think we do over which sort of situation we end up when agreeing to be parents, regardless of the child’s DNA!

So contemplate this for a moment. Have you ever known good parents whose kids still have a hard time, maybe even growing into adults who struggle with jobs or relationships or healthy life decisions? Have you ever known successful people (whether kids or adults) who seem to have succeeded in spite of, rather than because of the quality of the parenting they got? This is not to imply for a second that parenting doesn’t impact the outcome of a child’s development, quite the contrary. The point is that we’ve all surely seen examples that indicate that the playing field is inherently uneven. Even if I rule out foster/adoptive families (lest I weaken the argument for anyone skeptical about them), I have certainly seen outcomes that span the possibilities. I have seen people parent with tireless energy, courage and integrity, with outcomes that are humble to the outside world. I have also seen parents with half-hearted commitment who bask in the validation of being associated with a successful child.

Now contemplate this – how much does the outside world validate the real work being done? Have you ever (without having the background information to judge this) assumed that a delightful child must have delightful parents? Have you ever seen a kid throwing a fit in a supermarket and passed judgment on the parent you see feebly attempting to control it (or to ignore it and just grab the damn Cheerios and get out of there)? It’s tempting, right? I can certainly say as a parent that if I were to list the things I’m most proud of are almost all so far under-the-radar that they are imperceptible to other people. I don’t expect a trophy for biting my tongue and finding love in my heart when I’m tired and cranky and feel the welling-up of a snarky response to an annoying situation, but those are the sorts of moments where the real work is done. As I said above, this is not a responsibility from which one can turn away. If you expected your adorable baby would grow up and get a PhD from Harvard, yet you wind up with an oppositional 16 year old battling depression and substance abuse, it’s still your job to do right by him every day.

So (and, by the way, thanks for your patience) what does all of this have to do with Dr. King? Well, if I measured success in the traditional manner, I could take the approach that he was a big failure. Has racism in this country been eradicated? Are all citizens protected from discrimination? Are all workers afforded dignified working conditions? Was the war in Vietnam stopped due to his campaigning, or at least did it become an object lesson that prevented subsequent wars? No, no, no and no. Epic fail.

Of course this is absurd. What he did achieve was obviously colossal. Even further, though, I feel that he was driven by a spirit that in some ways superseded the specificity of his goals at any given protest, speech or act of civil disobedience. He was committed to putting forth a love of his fellow humans that was deep, unconditional and at the same time peaceful and courageous. He was guided by this in his decision-making, but I also feel that it was a potent element unto itself. If everybody loved with even a fraction of that potency, can you imagine how the world would be? Can you imagine how many needs would be met? Can you imagine how many “failures” would be rendered moot by the surplus of resources for those in need? And if that kind of genuine love of fellow humans is indeed so potent (as I believe it is), then can anyone love this way without somehow shifting the energy of our world in a positive way? Not just in a new-agey good-vibey kind of way. If you love people that much, they will be moved. They may not transform instantly and they may not appreciate you directly, but love has every bit as much ability to heal as hate and neglect have to wither. Once you love in this way, the transformation begins, but the form it takes is out of your hands.

Or maybe I’m just full of crap. Maybe this is just a long-winded way of defending the cult of the loser (of which I suppose I am a high-ranking officer) from further ignominy. Maybe us idealistic losers will look back at the end of it all and determine that all the love, growth and courageous risk-taking that peppered our lives was for naught and we’d trade it all just for the opportunity to “win.” If that’s the way the world turns, though, I’m opting out and hopping onto a different orbit. If Billy Joel would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, I think I’d rather toil, struggle, persevere and love to earn the vice-presidency of the ILS (Idealistic Losers’ Society) than find a shortcut that allows me to hoist a shiny trophy. I would rather try to transform a life and “fail” than shy away from trying (in which case the outcome would be even worse, but I would have felt able to absolve myself of responsibility for it, so I wouldn’t have “failed”). I never met Dr. King, of course, but when I look at his legacy, he embodies this courageous rejection of “failure” as society defines it . . . just one of the many reasons to be grateful for him.

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