It’s the end of another school year — the senior year for my middle son Harris — and I am once again sitting through awards ceremonies, concerts, performances and graduation events. When not doom scrolling on my phone in the more tedious moments of such rites of passage, I find myself reflecting on what all the awards mean.
My definition of success has changed drastically.
I once believed success meant winning. To achieve, I believed you had to be best, finish at the top, win the award, receive the recognition, earn the promotion and accept the accolades. Up until recently, that was my focus.
My school years brought much of the recognition I associated with achievement. I received numerous awards through grade school, high school and college. Being named “Mr. Senior” to finish out high school and earning the top academic award for both liberal arts and journalism graduates at what was then Troy State University were high honors. But time has altered how I view those awards. They do not come close to feeling significant anymore.
Recognition was more difficult to come by in the work world. I won a few reporting awards in journalism competitions, but my highest honor was earning second place in the state of Georgia Associated Press competition. It was in the feature writing category for a story I collaborated on about Georgians on the Titanic. Second place was the best I could do. I listed it on my resume for a long time, but it’s hardly worth mentioning now. It was, after all, only second place.
After I left journalism, there weren’t as many awards to win. Instead, I focused on other metrics: writing communications plans that achieved goals, either a certain number of media placements and contacts or hitting a fundraising mark. There were a few noteworthy achievements to list on a resume, but they hardly felt like the culmination of a life’s work.
When I returned to higher education communication, achievement meant earning promotions and becoming more influential in my roles on campus. I worked at Georgia Tech, one of the highest ranked public institutions in the country, but that was not a personal ranking. I did little to influence that ranking. I moved from serving as Senior Director of Communications and Marketing for the Georgia Tech Research Institute to the Director of Media Relations in the central communications office for the entire institute. It felt like an achievement at the time, but over the next four years, the job consumed me. I was on call 24/7 and dealt with crisis after crisis, large and small. I believed it was worth it because I was building my career with each experience. I thought my performance would position me well to become an associate vice president and then vice president of Institute Communications. When I failed to earn those titles in two search processes, I learned the hard way that my career was a poor way to seek affirmation and achievement.
I have never believed that recognition for volunteering or leadership roles in service organizations should be counted as achievements. When I gave considerable time to Cub Scouts as a den leader, Cubmaster and Popcorn Kernel, I didn’t feel an ego boost. I felt satisfaction when the program ran smoothly, but after a dozen years, I was glad to step aside and let others lead.
Whatever pride I felt when Highland Hills Baptist Church elected me chairman of deacons at age 33 melted when I had to deal with people behaving at their worst on issue after issue. Who knew replacing an air conditioning unit could divide a congregation into factions? Now that I have served two terms as chair of deacons at Parkway Baptist Church, I view the opportunity to pray for, visit, encourage and lead the diaconate as a privilege rather than an honor I somehow earned. Volunteering is about service, not recognition.
I started running for exercise in January 1993 and gradually succumbed to the allure of the marathon. Still, even though I have completed four marathons, and I posted my fasted time of 3:33 at the New York Marathon in 2000, physical feats don’t come anywhere close to feeling like a greatest achievement, especially now that my fastest times are decades behind me.
The years have shown me none of what I previously sought or claimed with pride is important to me anymore. As time marches on, there is nothing more important to me than my family. I could never receive another recognition or public affirmation again in my life, but if my wife, my children and my parents and mother-in-law know that I love them and will be there for them unconditionally, then that is my greatest achievement.
I would rather have a hug from Carla than my name on any certificate. Sharing a task with Barron is better than a trophy. Meaningful conversation with Harris means more to me than completing a work project. Preparing a pound cake with Carlton brings deeper satisfaction than a promotion or pay raise. Getting to spend time with Mom and Dad and having conversation over coffee around the dining room table or out on the screened-in porch is a richer blessing than being thanked for serving in a leadership role. Helping my mother-in-law with even the smallest of chores she can no longer physically do for herself is better than setting a personal record in the marathon.
There is a temptation for men of my age to shift the burden of achievement to their children, pressuring them to achieve what they never could. While I have great pride in what my boys achieve, I don’t view them as vehicles for my frustrated attempts at success. I am grateful to be with them on their journeys, encouraging them when they need a boost, picking them up when they fail, and celebrating with them when they win. To my former self, this sounds like the rationalization of someone who isn’t a winner, but what I’ve realized is that life isn’t enriched by achieving goals. Life is made worth living by the experiences accumulated along the way toward reaching the goals.
My greatest achievements? Laughter, affection, sharing, dialogue, presence. In a word, my greatest achievement in life so far is family.