The Measure of Success

Many people, when they’re young, expect to conquer the world. In my own delusions, I pictured myself as a jet-setting writer/director, making Important Movies that won armloads of awards and united every critic in praising me, Justin Muschong. I did not seek or want commercial success, though of course I was rich, living comfortably while suffering for my art.

My dreams yellowed with age. Expectations of Justin Muschong, Multiple Palm d’Or Winner, became hopes of Justin Muschong, Writer Who Can Pay the Bills.

I have achieved, at this point in my life, that winnowed-down dream. I am indeed a writer who pays the bills with his writing. But it took me a while to realize it, because there was no happy ending feeling, no sense of victory. Instead, it’s a low-simmering satisfaction, a knowledge that I am doing fairly well in the large scheme of things.

I am a writer for an immigration law firm, and so my writing is for an extremely small, niche audience of overworked government bureaucrats, and it requires me to write with very precise, specialized language, in a tone that is professionally respectful, shaded with groveling. I am glad to do what I do, and I think I do it well, but it does not give me the feeling of Justin Muschong, Writer of Slight Renown and Local Celebrity. Nor is it meant to; it is work, and very hard work. It doesn’t have the feeling of art.

I wonder — if I had struggled in poverty for a few years, living hand-to-mouth rather than working comfortable day jobs for a comfortable existence — would I have ‘made it’ by now? Would I be Justin Muschong, Award-Winning Filmmaker and International Playboy? I doubt it. But even if I had, I don’t think I’d be any happier than I am now. Because I realized there’s no making it, no golden era waiting in the wings. Life is a constant struggle; happiness is finding a struggle I enjoy. Happiness is a moment-to-moment prospect, and either I have it or I don’t.

When am I happy? When I’m eating. When I’m laughing with friends and family. When I’m engaging with art I love. When I’m sitting at my computer, or hunching over a notebook, writing something I want to write, something that gives me a sense of joy, of fun, that I can’t wait to edit and rewrite and hone, that I can’t wait for other people to read. And that’s what matters. Those happy moments — not the awards, money, and success that may never come.

I might one day accomplish my loftiest goals, and I’ll still want more. I might one day suffer great calamity and setbacks, and want to return to where I am now. I might never gain any more attention or acclaim than I have currently, remaining an obscure writer who will be instantly lost to history. Whichever it is, everything will ultimately be okay, as long as I have those moments.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Sometimes I even believe it.

Essay originally published on 1/27/15