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Forgive me for waxing sentimental today, but here goes…

How to define success? Is it our job? Our bank account? Our home? Our retirement savings? Certainly these things matter. But is it also something more, something less tangible than work or money or domicile?

Here at the outer edge of summer, I am thinking about September as the beginning of new things. The hopefulness of school and plans after the long, languid days of summer. Having had a career in higher education, I consistently focused on September as the month of renewed interest in goals, study and achievement. It represented the first step on the pathway to success.

We are geared for success. School itself teaches us success, and alternatively failure. If we work hard we can attain success. Grade by grade we advance. In college, course by course we accumulate the credits towards a desired credential. Both end with a graduation celebration marking success. Then we move on to a job, further education and more, such as marriage and children and a home of our own.

We draw out our lives along this life-designed continuum of success. Granted there can be interruptions and derailments. We may lose jobs. Marriages can fail. The housing market may preclude buying a house and we settle for a condo or a rental. But these things do not necessarily mean success, or failure, in the first place. Sure, they are good things and we may legitimately want and desire them but they do not define us as being successful, or not.

In western civilization we have long been socialized to believe that what we own defines whether or not we are successful. The accumulation of “stuff” is a demonstration of how well we are doing. I learned this at a young age when kids around me compared what they got for Christmas. There was a pecking order of affluence based on the quantity and quality of the presents received. Even parents bragged about what they had given their kids, adding dollar amounts for emphasis.

Presents, although seemingly important at the time, were quickly forgotten once the holidays came to an end. It left me to think, what was the point. Why do we get so caught up in the commercial frenzy and need to impress? After all, those credit card statements show up in January and where is the fun in that.

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I have nothing against money or affluence. But even Oprah says that wealth is not the means to, or the basis of, happiness. There has to be more, something deeper and ultimately more meaningful than the accumulation of money and the acquisition of property. Thus, we seek a life that gratifies us beyond the material and the concrete.

I realize that when people are without money they struggle. Poverty is a very real, very debilitating uphill climb for too many, especially single mothers. Everyone deserves the fundamentals of food and shelter and clothing. But everyone also deserves the fundamentals of relationships and love and kindness. I argue that therein (relationships, love and kindness) lies what we are ultimately seeking for a successful, happy life.

This week we are witnessing the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey and the resulting rains. Not since Hurricane Katrina has there been this level of displacement and loss in the US. People are leaving their homes with little more than what they can wear or carry in their arms. They are grateful to be rescued and taken to safety. They do not know where they will go next or what lies ahead. They are simply, in this moment, grateful to be alive and safe.

There will be many that will lose everything. Over 80% of the people in the storm path are without flood insurance. It is a devastating level of loss but with one caveat – that if you are alive you are blessed. Tragedies of this magnitude force all of us to look at life in a different way. If we can walk out of disaster alive and with our loved ones everything else seems small. Things can be replaced. People cannot.

So, in this confluence of September hopeful and unfortunate human predicaments I am struck by two things. One, is that striving to improve our lives is a good thing. Study and development and enriching our minds can only lead to better quality in how we live, how we see the world and how we treat one another. Education is consistently the opportunity to make the world a better place. Two, is that we should be mindful of what we value. We should be inclined towards our relationships and love as the core of what matters. In all of life’s critical moments that becomes poignantly clear.

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My father used to say to me that you cannot take it with you when you die, meaning all the stuff we acquire over a lifetime. He also used to say that we all put on our pants one leg at a time, even the Queen of England, meaning we are all essentially the same. He reminded me to be kind to everyone I met because he said the person serving you today may be the one you look up to tomorrow. I know some of this sounds idealistic but I am inclined to idealistic today as I consider Texas and refugees and poverty. I know that if Vancouver was struck by an earthquake tomorrow my concerns would be for people’s lives not the content of my household.

I might miss things but not for long. I remind myself of how many times I have opened a stored box to find inside things that I had long since forgotten, didn’t need or would not have missed. Sure things bring back memories and pleasure but they are not crucial to my well being or quality of life. As I look across the room at my husband I know, beyond all doubt, that the love between us is far more important than the things around us.

So many of us judge others and ourselves by the calibre of our job. We don’t feel as though we have “made it” until we attain a certain title. We want the look and feel of success. I was that person. These days though, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops where I do some of my best thinking and writing. I meet interesting people there and have wonderful conversations. I don’t have the office or title or job. By the measure of some, I am currently a failure. But by the measure of what matters, I am my most successful self today. I might have kept on building my career, seeking higher and better titles and opportunities. However, the day came when I knew that was no longer my destiny or desire.

A good life, a happy life is a life filled with love. It is, as my dad said to me, the one thing that we take with us when we die and the one thing we leave behind. If we let love be the central conviction towards success then all else that we accomplish will serve to support and augment it.

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I leave you with this final example of success. When I was leaving my job at a college in the US to return to Canada, it was a janitor on our campus that I needed to thank. I discovered he was away and that he would not return prior to my departure. When I asked where he was I was told he was back east celebrating his son’s graduation from a prestigious school. I smiled at that because this man had intrigued me. He was considered odd and eccentric. He kept to himself. But I sought him out. I thanked him regularly for keeping the bathrooms and hallways spotless. I often found him in the lunch room reading world history books and asked him questions that led to long discussions. At Christmas, I received two beautiful journals and organic chocolates from my Secret Santa and discovered it was him. He had remembered that I am a writer and that I love good chocolate. Because I would not see him before I left for home I wrote a letter to tell him what his kindness, his care and his conversations meant to me. I told him I would never forget him. And I won’t.

I was surrounded by academics with substantial credentials and titles. Yet, it was the quiet, obscure, intellectual, generous janitor who showed me that great lessons can come from places we miss unless we have the humility to be open. I learned that he was happy, that he enjoyed his work and that his life was rich with love, family and opportunities. Yes, he appeared odd and reclusive but once I got close I realized he was shy and introverted. Some considered him “only” the janitor. Their loss! He taught me that making a life is more valuable than making a statement.

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Think of your life. What are your measures of success? Even as you pursue your career goals and your life dreams take time to honour what you have in those you love and in those with whom you cultivate relationships. Don’t let social norms define your success. Create your own and keep it close to your heart.