I have struggled to answer this question for probably my whole life, but last week I had an experience which showed me one very good answer.
One of my oldest friends lost her partner and best friend; he succumbed to a fatal illness in a short period of time. Attending the wake, I watched her standing alone to greet the mourners. I admired her strength and poise, even as I could see in the unguarded moments, the strain of the past months peek through.
I was impressed by the number of people who turned out on a week night — for her — despite more snowflakes and very cold weather, during a winter when travel had become an endurance test for everyone.
At one point I met one of her bosses. When she found out that I was a very old friend, she proceeded to tell me what a great worker my friend is: how skilled, how professional, and how well-respected. “I wish I had ten of her,” she said. “And she is completely humble.” I thought to myself, how wonderful to not have to promote yourself because your work speaks volumes…and also to have someone you work for respect, love, and admire you so much. She gave me the heads-up about something that my friend did not know: she was going to receive an arrangement from a very prestigious client. When they found out what was going on with her, they said, “We want to send flowers.” “That is UNHEARD of,” her boss told me, “But they like her THAT much!”
My friend held a small dinner after the wake at a local restaurant. I sat at the end of one VERY long table. She was fussing over whether we had enough food and was worried that the family-style serving was not working, but not one person was greedy and filled their plate. All appreciated the food and appreciated her. Everyone knew this was costing her money she didn’t really have, and yet she wanted to show her appreciation to her friends. She had been unable to work very much during the time her partner was sick, and she works in a field that when she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid.
Despite the terrible circumstances, I felt happy for her as I looked down the long table full of supporters. Her life had been particularly difficult lately, but even without her recent challenges, her life wasn’t necessarily one that many people would look at as a “picture” of success. But it was clear as a summer sky to me that night.
A successful life does not have to be one with all the trappings and media accolades. It can be one where, when you are struggling, you are overwhelmed by love and support, respect and admiration in your own corner of the world. To me, my friend won an Oscar.