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In Praise of Failure; or, My Long, Slow Climb to the Middle

Mitchell Abidor
February 3, 2013

By Mitchell Abidor

For Jay Zook

When I was still a teenager, my Grandma, who had never recovered from the uncertainties of life in the shtetl, would say to me: “Mitchel, yu shud gro op to bee a civil soyvant.” She would extol to me the virtues of job security and a pension for life. This was a familiar tune for Grandma: She had had three sons who among them had four civil service jobs. Not for her the drive to make a million, to be the CEO of a major company, or even to open a business of one’s own; rather, a stable job followed by decades of pension checks was the perfect life as defined by Rose Abidor.

All of this went right over my teenage head. Socialist revolution was more my goal — but as things turned out, I listened to her. So my long, slow climb to the professional middle truly began at Grandma and Grandpa’s condominium on Meridian Avenue and Second Street in Miami Beach over forty years ago. Grandma was giving me my first lesson in an alternative definition of success.

The catalog of the Brooklyn Public Library contains 4,253 items pertaining to “success,” and Amazon carries no less that 148,867. I read about 200 books a year, so it would take me over 744 years to read Amazon’s collection, and twenty-one to read the library’s pile — but after spending six centuries or three decades, would I be any more likely to be a success, or would I understand any more about its nature, than simply by reading the 180 pages of The Great Gatsby?

The American fascination with success and all its manifestations is undeniable, and in many ways a cause for shame. Can any nation be proud that its interest in successful businessmen has led to four books by the ridiculous Herman Cain and more than a dozen by the odious Donald Trump? The mad drive to succeed has also given rise to the plague of inspirational speakers who draw hordes of listeners and attract piles of money to hear their recipes for success. Of course, the only ones to get wealthy from talks on how to become wealthy are those who give the talks. It could be argued that it is precisely this striving for success that has made America great and wealthy. Yet by what measure is it either? Our income equality is the worst among developed economies, and we rank 104th in the world’s happiness ratings.

For all the products of the success industry, those who truly succeed, those at the top of the financial heap, didn’t get there by reading Trump. They got there through hard work, to be sure, but also through good education, good connections, and good luck. They also got there by sacrificing simple pleasures, by giving away the one irreplaceable resource, their time, by valuing financial success over all other kinds, and by ignoring the possibility that there are other measures of success.

I am approaching the end of my work life, having spent more than thirty-eight years in New York’s public hospital system, the Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC). I started working there temporarily in 1974 while waiting to move on to my true career, whatever that would be. After a brief, failed attempt at escape, I settled in for life.

There was a period when it appeared I was destined for “success.” Promotion followed promotion, and leadership looked to be my destiny. But it never happened, and my career stalled and ended up being just a long, slow climb to the middle. There I have stayed as the clock ticks down to retirement. (I mean that literally: on my desktop is a countdown clock I’ve kept for almost ten years. At one point it showed as many days as the siege of Leningrad, and I would tell people that if the Russians could eat rats, I could hang in there at what I do.) Frmly ensconced in the middle is where I will end my career, my potential unfulfilled.

Or is it?

Our potential is only unfulfilled if we haven’t done what we could or should have done in life. It constitutes an abject surrender to the forces of evil to consider only that portion of life dedicated to work as the determinant of our success or failure.

As I look around me, as I see those who started along with me and who have gone further than I have professionally, I seriously doubt whether any of them would score as well as I on a personal happiness index, for a couple of reasons. First, there is the stress that goes with success: the fending off of those aiming for your job, the interminable meetings, the need to wear a tie . . . But this is only part of it: stress we all have.

If we look through the guides to success that are out there — which include role models like Genghis Khan and Hannibal — what you will never see is someone like Diogenes, the father of Cynicism. Cynicism has been horribly misinterpreted over the centuries as a sneering and disabused worldview, but it was far from that. It was a doctrine — if it could be called that, since we have no lengthy theses written by its originators — that insisted on absolute honesty, on an acceptance of our natural selves, on a refusal to kowtow to authority, and a contempt for restrictions on who we actually are. One anecdote from the life of Diogenes can stand for the philosophy’s attitude towards truth and power. Alexander the Great went to visit the philosopher and asked if he could do anything for him. Diogenes was lying on the ground and didn’t even stand up when his august visitor spoke to him; he finally looked up and replied, “Stand a little out of my sun.” Such a healthy attitude will get you nowhere at the office, but it is key to living a life of integrity. If there is anything that will stand in your way as you attempt to climb the professional ladder, it’s the insistence upon being yourself — unless your fundamental self is greedy, hollow, sycophantic and jargon-ridden.

Let’s change our definition of success and describe it, instead, as a life in which you earn enough to live as you’d like, in which you’re able to maintain a happy personal life and never, at any point, have to sell your soul, in which you’re not ashamed to say you take lunch every day and have dinner with the family (since you leave work at a normal hour), and in which you can recognize yourself in all your acts and not some artificial being who acts in your stead as he drags you along to a place you’d rather not be. Being in the middle, safely cushioned by those below who actually do the work, and by those above who have to deal with the pressure and the long hours, is, I can say from personal experience, a nice place to be.

What happens all too often is that the artificial being who “succeeds” in your stead takes over, and the artificial you becomes you. After all, that artificial work self takes up a huge chunk of your life, a chunk that grows as success becomes an ever-greater obsession. So the part of you who watches everything you say at work — to make sure you never commit a faux pas that will result in your fall — grows larger and larger, until you no longer see yourself in your acts. Even worse, you’re no longer aware that this factitious being is not the you you could have been and should have been.

Perhaps others might not think it something to be proud of, but I’m confident that if the me of thirty-five years ago were to appear before me now, aside from the sad physical degradation, he would still be recognizable as me. The same cannot be said for my friends who have left me in the dust. And that’s no small thing.

There is something else that goes along with the maintaining of your soul: If I’m asked an opinion on something, those asking know they will always get an honest answer. Incapable of fudging, I didn’t make it as far as my talents should have taken me. But I’m treated with respect, nonetheless, because I’m considered to have sacrificed the success measured by money and power for a success measured by esteem and self-respect. That, too, is no small thing.

My long, slow climb to the middle can be seen as an instructive one. Few of us will be Masters of the Universe, and accepting that fact, accepting professional failure, and finding your success and your happiness outside that realm is essential. My path is proof that you can be left behind by those who perhaps shouldn’t have been able to do so, but that that’s fine. That going home to your wife, to your son, to your books with not a single thought of your job is a nice way to live.

At the end of a work life — or of life — it all seems to have been foreordained. The choices you made can’t be undone, so they were in a sense the only ones that could be made. Character is fate, and I am certain that was my case. But remaining true to that character has resulted in a happy life. There’s much to be said for failing.

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.

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