Are you Successful?

In Opinion

One of Elisa Wallace’s favorite quotations is by Corita Kent: “Life is a succession of moments: To live each one is to succeed.” She likes it so much that she put it on the back of her business cards. The first time I read it, I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever seen. A play on words that sounds wise, but that is actually pretty meaningless. But the more that I have watched Elisa work with her horses, and the more that I have observed the kinds of moments she celebrates, the more profound this statement has become to me.

All too often, we have a tendency to equate success with accomplishment. We view success as an end. When I was still very new to equestrian sport, I thought that success for Elisa meant achieving a particular result. A first place ribbon, for example, or a top ten finish. In these early days, I was frequently struck by how what I thought would have been reason for disappointment (i.e., not finishing in the ribbons) often turned to celebration. And how an otherwise excellent score might lead to disappointment.

The reason for this disconnect was the fact that Elisa and I had very difference conceptions of success. For me, success in sport meant achieving a particular result. You establish a goal. You either achieve it or you don’t. Success is binary. You either have it or you don’t. For Elisa, on the other hand, success is a movement toward the actualization of one’s potential. In a horse, this may mean demonstrating an increase in bravery, coordination, or scope, regardless of ‘how well’ that horse might be scored in competition. In herself, this means that she is constantly striving to become a better horsewoman. This doesn’t mean giving up on dreams like representing the US in international competition. All it means is that the rewards and accolades that she receives are not end in themselves, but are rather the natural result of a life-long commitment to being excellent at what she does.

What is frustrating about this conception of success is the fact that you don’t know what your potential is, or even what it looks like. If you don’t know what the end looks like, how will you ever know if you have made it? (for those of you who are philosophically inclined, this problem will remind you of Meno’s Paradox). But that is exactly the point. Success requires constant reflection about yourself, your desires, your personality, your capacities, and your goals. It is a constant striving to become better even in the absence of a clear idea about what ‘best’ might look like. In this, success means a willingness to adjust external goals in light of new realizations about yourself, and in response to changing circumstances.

This last point is especially important. Our desires and capacities do not only come from ourselves. Instead, they are very much a function of our environments and the people around us. What this means is that ‘who we are’ is not a stable thing. The essence of who I am is a moving target that is shaped by the decisions I make in response to everything that happens around me. A successful mustang is a wild horse who survives. Once adopted and cared for, however, the same energy that the horse previously invested entirely in its own subsistence, is freed up to allow for the expression of other capabilities. It is amazing to see a mustang’s personality emerge as a result of Elisa’s training. Once a horse realizes that its basic needs are taken care of, and develops the trust necessary to overcome its fight-flight response, a whole new set of potentials begin to emerge. And the same thing happens to human beings when they are thrust into a new situations. A change in situation may mean upsetting prior goals, but it also opens up new horizons.

The opposite of success is not failure. The opposite of success is giving up. My father always said that you can’t steer a parked car. As long as you keep moving and improving in the areas that you value, then you are succeeding indeed. Inspired by a perspective gained as a result of a life with horses, my only resolution this year is to embrace success as a process, and to celebrate each of my successive moments as a victory along the way to a future unknown.

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