The Secret of My (Non)Success:

(A Fairly Cynical Reflection on “Dreaming Big.”)

NeverRecently I attended a “Dream Workshop,” designed to “guide [me] on a journey to discover what [I] really, really, really want.” That’s a fairly ambitious goal, especially since I am programmed not to want anything, but to be satisfied with what I get, which is frankly more than I deserve. One of the exercises we completed was creating a “dream board” – a visual representation of our ideal life. Here’s mine.


Someone asked me, “How do you expect to live in such a tiny house, with all your stuff?” My answer: “It’s not a house. It’s a potting shed.”

Pretty! Realistically, though, the only element of this collage I’m likely to achieve is another cat.

My kind tend to be suspicious of dreaming. In fact, “you must be dreaming” was one of my father’s familiar expressions of disapproval. In our pragmatic view, unless your dreams are modest indeed (“I dream of a chicken sandwich for lunch!”), you are 1) getting too big for your britches and 2) almost certain to be disappointed.


The pinnacle of my success

I’m prepared to concede that the world needs a few dreamers; I wouldn’t have the job I do if it weren’t for one. On the other hand, it’s us just-do-your-jobbers, this-is-as-good-as-it-gets-ers who free up the heavy thinkers’ time to do all that, well, heavy thinking. We deem it more honorable to starve to death doing honest, menial work than starve to death trying to, in my Dad’s parlance, “set the world on fire.” So it’s hard to appreciate the blue sky when your nose is to the grindstone.

Whenever I hear a famous actor tell how his family supported him in pursuing his dream, I feel sorry that he wasn’t loved enough to be told not to be a damned fool. Seriously, what kind of parents encourage their offspring to go into a profession in which the chance of success is infinitesimally small and the chance of suffering rejection and disappointment is roughly 100%? (I briefly dated a theatre major whose mother pleaded with him, “Don’t go into acting, Joe. You’ll only end up unemployed and doing drugs.” He did, by the way. Mother knows best.)



As I assume everyone knows, the keys to success are not intelligence or talent or willingness to work hard; these are qualities many abject failures possess (*waving my hand in the air wildly*). No matter how hard you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the only thing you’re likely to get is laughed at when you fall on your keister trying to pull yourself up; bootstraps don’t work that way, duh.

Nope. What you really need to get ahead are self-confidence and chutzpah – neither one of which I possess in abundance. Apparently the ability to play well with others is also important. Every authority on professional development stresses “using your contacts” and “networking.” Okay. And if you don’t have either or those? Where’s the fast track for curmudgeons?

familycrestSurely the biggest factor determining whether you make something of yourself or die in obscurity is, it seems to me, a willingness to promote yourself and what you have to offer. Hubris! By contrast, my family crest is emblazed with these words of wisdom: Quare et vos credatis sunt tibi magna? (Roughly translated: What makes you think you’re so important that anybody is going to look at you*?). Our coat of arms is a mouse, dormant.

Having reached the half century mark (that’s more than halfway to dead), it seems unlikely that I will ever meet the common definition of “success.” That’s okay. I’ll continue to write things nobody reads, putter in my garden and collect cats. That’s close enough to a dream life for me.


*That’s not really our family crest motto (we’re not important enough to have a coat of arms; our people have always been rabble). It’s also not a very accurate translation into Latin of something my grandmother told my mom when she was fussing over her appearance as a teen. It’s become my personal credo.

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