Success and the Future

Day’s Verse:
And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:14

One of these vehicles is not like the others. Can you identify the outlier?
One of these is not like the other

That’s right! It’s the touring-equipped recumbent tricycle parked next to Lucy, my fast bike. This extraordinary vehicle was being ridden by Dr. Bob Van Valkenburgh from Skagit Valley to Sacramento, CA on a bicycle tour. (What might that be like? Here’s what he said about his previous tour.) Here he is taking off from our house on Saturday morning.
Bob Van Valkenburgh

Why did we have a total stranger staying with us? Because I signed up with Warm Showers, and Bob emailed to see if he could stay with us, and we had no reason why not. Why have a house with extra bedrooms and bathrooms if you never use them? Plus, it turned out really interesting.

Bob loved to chat, and here’s a tiny snippet of what I learned from him: He is a 68-year-old (give or take a year) anesthesiologist who retired after a 38-year career. He has been riding recumbent trikes since he crashed on STP some years ago. He has three recumbent trikes, including a 12-foot-long tandem recumbent he and his wife ride (“My wife says she just sits back and reads a book back there!” Apparently they’re separate drivetrains). He sailed a sailboat to Hawaii in the 70s. He put himself through Yale by running his own printing business and graduated in the mid-1960s. He ended up going to medical school because a friend bet him $5 that he couldn’t get in, and ended up doing anesthesiology because radiology didn’t turn out as interesting as doping people up. He taught anesthesiology at three different schools, including the University of Washington. He’s gregarious and extremely interesting to just listen to.

This is a guy who’s had an amazing life, and isn’t hesitant to share it. He talked a lot about anesthesiology and his career hospitals. Thus, during our Saturday morning oatmeal breakfast, I felt justified in asking, “So, would you do it again?” Almost without hesitation, he replied, “No. And I’d bet that if you asked any doctor who’s worked longer than 5 years, they’d say the same thing.”

This gave me some real pause. Here’s a guy who’s probably helped thousands of people in his long career — quite literally eased suffering — and yet he unequivocally stated that he would not repeat that career if given the opportunity to do it again. I can’t say whether he felt fulfilled, or whether it was a meaningful way to spend 40 years, or whether he felt he had succeeded in life, but I can say that it sounds like there was a point when he worked 120-hour weeks and hardly ever saw his family. He told a story of sitting down at the breakfast table and having his five-year-old say, “Who are you?” (“I’m pretty sure my ex-wife put him up to it,” Bob added.)

When I heard Bob say he wouldn’t choose to be an anesthesiologist again, and when I heard him tell stories about how busy he was during his career, I heard a subtext: This is not succeeding at what’s important. There are more important things than working, making money, and spending money. Success at a career — rising through the ranks (which he certainly did), getting a high salary, becoming well-known or whatever — doesn’t mean you succeeded at life.

This made me start thinking: When I look back on my life, I want to be able to say that yes, I had succeeded…but it really made me start thinking about success, and what I want to achieve. I’m sure Bob made great money, and now he’s able to go for month-long bike tours, but if you spend 120 out of 168 hours in a week working during your prime years, when do you play with your kids? When do you deepen your love for your spouse? When do you build relationships with friends? When do you just sit and listen to somebody’s story? When do you read a novel, go for a walk, laze in bed and watch the sun rise?

I have to ask myself, then: Were my last five years successful ones? What will success look like for me in five more years? Or in 10 years, or in 40 years? What a great way to make sure I have my priorities right. I want to have kids and spend time with them. Read them books, cuddle with them, color pictures, stack and restack block towers, take walks to the park, swing on the swings, play in the mud, splash in the puddles, teach them to ride bikes… Success would be to be more Christ-like every day, to raise my kids right, to love Ian more then than I do now, to maintain lifelong friendships and to continue building new friendships. To love, to serve, to joy in each moment, whatever comes.

Notice what’s conspicuously absent? Climbing a corporate ladder to further a career.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer for National Geographic or Scientific American (after giving up my plan of being a long-distance truck driver, a dream that died when I learned to drive and found I didn’t care for it much). If I talked to my high school self now, I’m pretty sure Past Katie would look at Present Katie as a failure. What was the point of feminism if I end up in the home, cooking and cleaning?! What kind of wimp-out option is it to be married and stay at home, hoping to one day be a mom? Why did you waste time getting that BS, anyway? Sheesh! Get off your butt and DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE, Past Katie would say to me.

And Present Katie would smile, because she knows something that Past Katie doesn’t know. Present Katie has learned that it’s not the quantity of what you do in life, but the quality of what you do that matters. And in the long term, investing in people is always higher-quality time spent than investing in work. I am doing something with my life, and I’m succeeding at it, too.