Of success and burgers
There are times when I question my sanity. Or rather, there are times when I question my line of thinking. A state of insanity suggests a loss of sense of reality. I have not yet reached the sentiment of Adam Savage of rejecting your reality and substituting my own. But in the past fortnight, in general, I have been questioning my motivations and what it means to be successful.
For over a month now, I have been studying for the Illinois bar exam. It is often a highly stress-inducing event. And yet, I do not feel that stress for some odd reason. High school classmates from 15 years ago can attest that the thought of a B+ would send me into an ulcer-inducing panic. Perhaps I have been through one too many major exams since; the MCAT, Step 1 of the USMLE, the LSAT, none of which I had taken only once. Perhaps I have seen enough of both failures and successes that I have become numb to it all. Perhaps I have become so fatigued in the past three and half year of schooling to be as ambitious as my peers. In my mind, the worse case scenario is that I do not pass it this time around and I retake it, as I did before with the MCAT, USMLE, LSAT, etc.. The worse case scenario is that success is postponed.
And so, precisely, what does “success” mean? Over a fortnight ago, I donned academic regalia once again and walked another commencement ceremony. I am now Khoa A. Dao, B.A., B.S., B.MSc., J.D., LL.M.. This should be my last for the time being; though had I won the record breaking $1.58 billion Powerball lottery on 13 January, I would be applying to architecture school right now. I had the privilege of listening to a much more positive and humble commencement speaker this time around than back in June. The speaker at my J.D. graduation came off rather self-boasting and preachy. By great contrast, the Honorable Rita B. Garman, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, delivered a very thought-provoking address at the ceremony two and a half weeks ago.
Justice Garman spoke of what it means to be successful. She recited the story of an attorney who spent a great deal of time at his office working and billing hours well into the evenings and weekends. While he was earning a great deal of money to support his new family, he was allocating more time to his desk than to his wife and newly born child. It was not until years later that he realised what he had missed out, and to make up for time lost, devoted much more of it to his family. Despite his career advancements and accumulated wealth, Justice Garman did not consider him to be truly successful until he had made time for his family.
We often equate success with a quantitive figure: the level of seniority at a job, the amount of money in the bank, the volume of material goods. Justice Garman asked whether accumulating the aforementioned can truly constitute success. She posited that theses may take the form of short term success, but only at that. True success, she averred, is what cannot be measured and absolutely compared. Rather, success is relative and qualitative. Success is the time we spend with those dear and close to us—our family and friends. Success is the pride and honour derived from personal and professional accomplishments and achievements; the quantitive benefits resulting from such (money, titles, etc.) are merely incidental.
Justice Garman’s words have been reverberate through my thoughts ever since. As much as I have been telling myself the same thing for quite some time now, external factors and the competitive nature of human beings make it difficult to adhere to such wisdom. The problem in determining whether one is successful lies in the need of a baseline to which to compare. Through a comparison, quantitative levels are objective and therefore much easier to determine, whereas the quality of one’s achievements are relative and subjective, leading to more nebulous determinations. It is much easier to compare salaries, for instance, than to compare the worth of a personal accomplishment such as building an oak desk from scratch.
The problem is compounded with an objective value versus a subjective worth. One cannot simply compare subjectivities. I present the following hypothetical: two individuals running a marathon. Person A completes the 26.2 mile run a little over 3 hours while person B does it in 5 hours. Quantitatively, one concludes that person A is more successful than person B. Ignoring our competitive tendencies for a moment, however, I deem that both are successful. Full stop. Each person finished a marathon. That might have been enough for person B. Doing the same a little over 3 hours, however, may not be a success for person A. From my point of view, though, both attained success.
And so to prevent me from going on some circular discussion about objectivity versus subjectivity, I will turn one of my favourite lines from the Star Wars saga. “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Ben Kenobi, Episode VI. The problem that I have been facing as of late is that from my own point of view, I cannot determine whether I have been successful. This is after excluding the objective and quantitative measures. Hell, if I were to take those into consideration, the scales would tip greatly away from success. Quantitatively, I am 32 years old, bring in an income less than those of my peers on average, live in a 1920s apartment instead of owning a house, have never been married, and without children. By stark contrast, many of the people with whom I went to high school are married with several kids, own a home, and are living a steady and peaceful, idyllic white-picket fence existence. I have been on only one date in the past two and a half years of being single. Meanwhile, many of my cousins are now married or will be quite soon, leading to my relatives to question if I am okay or not. Adding to that, my parents are often quick to point out that I am the same age as Kim Jong-un and yet he has his own country.
When I look upon my personal accomplishments to determine whether I have been successful, I want to say that I have been indeed successful in some respect, close to it in other respect, and outright not at all in some cases. The same two individuals who compare me to that fat psychopath running North Korean also espouse that one’s education is something that no one can deprive. I may not practice medicine anymore, and I may have forgotten a few drug indications and interactions, but save for a lobotomy, no one can take away my medical knowledge and experience. No one can take away the skills that I have developed in law school. No one can deprive me of the knowledge and wisdom I acquired from all of the books and papers I have read, from The Art of War to The Darwin Awards. Despite how educated I have and continue to become, cannot determine whether or not that is enough to warrant success. I could just simply conclude that yes, I have been successful. But for some reason, I am unable to do that. I am not saying that I have failed, but rather, I am not satisfied to in proclaiming “mission accomplished.”
I can say the same about my photography. While I appreciate and am quite humbled by the praise I have received for my work from clients and followers, I am not satisfied in proclaiming success as a photographer. Rather, I feel far from, and I am uncertain if I will ever achieve success in this field. To me, success here is when I have fully mastered the art and have created a photograph that is free of any and all flaws, a photograph with which I am completely satisfied. Mastery of a skill takes a lifetime, though. So I will probably achieve success as a photographer on the day I cease to be.
There is one area in my life where I can claim certain success, though—my circle of friends. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and rich to have the friends that I do. I do not have many friends, and of the most loyal and can only count on one hand, but the individuals whom I am privileged to call “friend” are the best for what one can ask. And the success of my friendships was illustrated two and a half weeks ago on the day of my LL.M. graduation.
It was a bitterly cold day that Sunday, with the windchill reaching -15°F outside in Chicago. Although I had told my friends that I would not want them to suffer through the two hours of boredom of the ceremony (as my parents, sister, and buddies Calvin and Adam did back in June), one friend insisted on being there. As i walked into the Grand Ballroom to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, I saw my friend Zoya standing by the door and waving at me as I walked pass. I will never forget that moment. Nor will I ever forget the post-ceremony dinner at which more of my friends braved the cold to meet up at Kuma’s Too. Of course, there was the possibility that a major incentive to meet up—for Calvin at least—was the Sourvein burger, consisting of a 10 ounce beef patty, cheddar, applewood bacon, chicken tenders, waffles, raspberry aioli, and maple syrup, I am simply presuming that my friends were there to share in my joy and happiness. And so the nine of us ate, drank, laughed, and celebrated. Asides from a few who were unable to make it due to circumstances beyond their control, that dinner was exactly what I had wanted—all of my friends, together and happy.
I guess I am successful, after all, through this point of view..