This one is complicated.
A classmate wrote an anniversary report that was exactly as I would have predicted. I know him well; we roomed together for three years. It was virtually a parody of what people think Harvard grads sound and think like in the autumn of their years. And it bothered me.
My old roomie wrote about how the pandemic had adversely affected his life. He and his wife were used to going to fine restaurants, the Met, the ballet, the Philharmonic and Broadways shows. In retirement, he was still on several corporate boards. Things got so bad when New York City was shut down that his family had to flee their Park Avenue penthouse apartment for their other apartment in Newport, Rhode Island. The compensating aspect of this hardship was that he was able to take his large sailboat out frequently, as sailing has always been his passion.
The funny thing about this entry was that there was no sense that my old friend was boasting or trying to impress anyone, though I have read similar prose in dreaded Christmas letters that made me want to upchuck, so obvious it was that the writer desperately wanted readers to turn forest green with envy. My friend is not like that: as a student “Walter” (not his real name) was always very matter-of-fact about his goal of graduating, getting a business degree, working on Wall Street, and making as much money as possible so he could retire before he was 60. And so he did; every choice he made, every course he took, every organization he joined was calculated to accomplish that goal.
I always assumed he would succeed. His priorities and values could hardly have been more different from mine, but I admired him for many of those differences. While I was impulsive and easily drawn to new pursuits, he was disciplined and constant. While I was (and am) a dilettante who would rather do ten different things simultaneously and sort of well, Walt abhorred distractions and diversions, and stuck to the course he had charted. I’ve never charted a course. He was always careful and calculating; I have always taken risks.
As I read his report, I thought, “This is everything you ever wanted, my freind. You’re a success; not only that, you epitomize what the public considers a typical Harvard grad’s concept of success. Good for you.”
And yet his casual, unadorned (because he didn’t need to adorn it) description of a privileged and fortunate (and well-earned: Walt worked for what he achieved) life seemed so empty and pointless to me. I’m not envious in the least. It is because my definition of success is the same as Winston Churchill’s and was before I ever read his famous quote: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
For better or worse, that’s me, and has always been me. Like my room mate, I haven’t changed a bit.