Shoes, Success, and other Ugly Things

“That’s how you know you’ve failed at life – when you’re twenty-four and working at a place like this.”

By the time he’d finished his sentence, I had already rounded the next corner and wasn’t able to pinpoint which teenager had muttered the comment. It might have been the tall blond one with the chiseled jaw, wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts and Sperry thongs. Or, it could have been the one standing to his left sporting an expensive new haircut, a pale-yellow American Eagle long-sleeved t-shirt and canvas Polo shoes.

But I like to think it was the one sitting on the padded stool, with his over-sized graphic tee and denim shorts. Why? Because he happened to be trying on a pair of solid black, extra-wide New Balance WX608V4 walking shoes – the kind nobody in their right mind would touch unless they were past running age and suffering from collapsed arches…either that or reluctantly complying with some strange high-school PE dress-code.

Since this one seemed closer to high-school age than wise old age, I assumed the latter to be the case.

But it didn’t really matter who said it. And it didn’t really matter that they even threw out a few theories as to why anyone would possibly choose to work at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. I didn’t catch the first theory; I barely caught “extra spending-money” as I walked by; and I missed any that may have followed.

Perhaps if I’d stuck around a little longer I’d have heard something closer to the truth. Something in the “desperate times call for desperate measures” category.

But I doubt it.

Did I really care what three random teenagers thought about me? Apparently I did, because their comments made me reflect on my situation a little more than I usually do.

When your company cuts your hours down to anywhere from 0 to 8 hours per week, it’s best to find a second job before the rent’s due. And if, say, you could only afford a single day off per week (exam days), then you might find you don’t have much time (or energy) for deep reflection.

But as I watched the trio saunter off towards the register (he really is going to buy those ugly shoes, geez), I couldn’t help but reflect just a little.

What did I imagine my future would look like when I was a pimple-faced, Axe-body-spray-wearing ball of smart-alecky potential?

At twenty-four?

Why, I’d be working on my first post-grad most likely. But I’d be almost finished. I’d be married to the love of my life of course, and maybe even have rugrats by then. Maybe I’d have authored a book or two. Maybe not. But I’d definitely have some published work in a respected journal, and maybe even a few patents in my name. I’d have mastered the violin by then (maybe not “Hilary Hahn mastered”, but I’d at least be orchestra-ready),and I’d have learned a third language perhaps. Other than that, I’d have digested a small library’s worth of books, and I’d certainly have traveled the world a bit more too. That last part goes without saying.

The details weren’t too important, but that much at least I would have to show for my life at twenty-four.

But none of those things happened. Turns out those little details make all the difference in the world.

I’ll spare you my life’s story. It’s not important. It’s a long and tragic story, just like everyone else’s. But, there is a short narrative I discovered that, though a bit cold, accurately describes my journey thus far. To be precise, it’s a poem – this one: “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson:

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

For what it’s worth, it’s worth reading a second time.

A good friend of mine introduced me to this poem about a year ago. He has a framed portrait of it on his desk at his business. I have it framed in my bathroom. It’s in front of the toilet, right at eye level, so any time someone goes number two, they come face-to-face with profundity.

Seriously though, there is a lot wrapped up in this short poem. The main idea is this:

You may not be entirely responsible for your situation. But once you realize that the only person who can change it is you, you no longer get to call yourself a victim. At that moment, you alone become responsible for either staying where you are, or for getting yourself out.

It’s about accepting the responsibility for your own life.

It’s a proposition that’s both daunting, and empowering. That’s why I like to be reminded of it often. It’s a good lens to view life through, since life is a continuous cycle of falling into holes and climbing back out. Of failing and succeeding.

Time and time again.

And like the sidewalk metaphor, life is full of sudden, unexpected drops and potential falls. You never really know what’s coming, and the scary part is trying to figure out whether you’re making your way out of an old hole, or burrowing into a new one.

Hell, it’s not just scary – on the worst days it can turn into a competitive bluffing game between confidence and doubt! It’s not a very fun game, especially when your future is hanging in the balance. On days like that, even something as simple as the wrong words at just the right time can upset the balance.

How? By giving doubt a voice. It isn’t hard to do. Even a denim-shorts wearing teenager can do it. And when doubt has a voice, it uses it to whisper things like:

“You’re failing – you just don’t know it yet.”

But here’s the thing: I really don’t think I am failing. I say this because I’ve failed before. I know what failure feels like. And if you’ve ever failed then you know what failure feels like too.

Failure feels different for everyone. Everyone’s failure is different after all. And it’s not always about jobs or money either. I was making good money when I was failing.

This is what my hole in the sidewalk was like: It felt like wasted potential, and it always felt like it was someone else’s fault. It tasted like vodka and regret…it smelled like pot and apathy. It usually sounded like grunge-metal or silence, but sometimes it sounded like the muffled sobs of a neglected wife. It was an Xbox controller and a leaky faucet. It was pride in action…it was despair in denial.   

But what about success? What does it feel like to succeed?

Is it a photo-op for a newspaper article with you shaking hands with important people while accepting an award?

No, that’s just a mile-marker for a certain kind of success. I’m talking about what success is made of. I’m talking about the countless tiny steps that lead to success. Can they be measured? Or generalized? Or codified?

I like to believe that they can.

Yes, this is the toilet-seat view of my bathroom.

I think success looks something like this:

overcoming barriers to success.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that’s the conclusion I came to after…stewing for a while. Obviously, you overcome barriers to success in order to achieve success. That’s like saying you have to climb out of a hole in the sidewalk to get out of a hole in the sidewalk.

But this is where I had my aha-moment.

We like to talk about barriers to success as if they were universal. As if everyone faced the same barriers when trying to achieve the same success.

But that just isn’t the case. Just like there are a thousand different ways to fail, there are also a thousand different ways to succeed. Each person’s success looks different, because the obstacles that stand in the way of that success are different for each individual person.

People don’t like to see it this way, but success isn’t really a competition between you and other people: it’s a competition between the version of you that succeeds and the version of you that fails.

I’m using my own life as an example here, but no matter who you are or what your goals are, you will face challenging obstacles that will test your resolve to make those goals happen. Whether or not you are up to those challenges, will determine whether or not you succeed.

So what does success look like up close? It looks like overcoming one’s barriers to success. One unique obstacle at a time.

____________________

 

That’s the realization that I took away from my brief exposure to unsolicited teenage opinion the other day.

Success doesn’t come easily. It comes with barriers to be overcome. Some of these barriers are explicit, like engineering degrees, but most are more subtle and varied. Obstacles like pride for example. What might pride look like?

Pride is an obstacle that can take the form of anything, really. But mostly, it takes the form of that one thing that we’re too good for. That one thing we say we’ll never do.

For me, it was accepting a minimum wage job at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. Before that, it took the form of living with relatives in a new city. Before that it was working a third-shift factory job to save money for a big move. Before that…

You get the idea.

That teenager (I really should just give him a name. Cliff? Clifford? Yeah, let’s go with that)…Clifford got me thinking about how I got here. In the end, he helped me realize that in spite of how things look on the outside, I’m not failing. I’m pushing through one of the many obstacles that stands between me and success.

And that is what success is all about. It’s what success looks like in real time. It’s what success looks like up close.

I’ll admit I was a little peeved at Clifford at first…and I’ve probably been a little too hard on him. No doubt he hates those ugly 608’s as much as I do.

But those shoes will get him one step closer to his own goal, whether that goal is a passing PE grade, or a more comfortable walk to the park to feed the ducks.

His shoes, much like success, just aren’t very pretty up close. I imagine that watching a bruised and bloodied person scrape and scratch their way out of a huge hole in the sidewalk isn’t a very pretty sight either.

I suppose I should be grateful to Clifford though. His words prompted me to delve into something that deserved delving. And maybe something that was worth sharing, too.

And you know what else?

He thought I looked twenty-four!

Now that’s the kind of honest compliment I’ll take from anybody, anytime.

…even from a New Balance-wearing teenager named Clifford.