My work as an on-air contributor for Good Morning America some years ago began, more or less, after an in-person meeting and interview with one of the show's senior producers. I spent some minutes waiting for her in her office, perusing bookshelves as I tend to do at such times. What caught my eye, and has stayed in my mind ever since, was a book entitled Toxic Success.
As the title implies, the book is all about the tendency to wrest failure from the jaws of success -- to clear a bar, only to find oneself staring at a higher bar (1). Consider how universal this phenomenon can be: If you win a Nobel Prize, your new club is comprised of Nobel laureates, among whom you aren't special anymore. The lady with two of them may be a source of communal envy. So, too, for an Academy Award: Damn that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, anyway! And, no doubt, even Ms. Streep, in darker moments, can conjure her own phoenix of failure from the ashes of all that triumph.
This isn't all bad, of course; it may be the dark side of ambition. In the absence of ambition, there is status quo forever -- or if not, any progress is a product of happenstance rather than intention. Ambition is the engine of willful progress, and the enemy of stagnation. That, presumably, is a good thing (2).
But a good thing that comes at a cost. For how, exactly, does one titrate ambition? How does one turn it off so that a certain bar, cleared, results in contentment?
Contentment really is the prize. Even though my career is devoted to health, I don't mistake that for the prize. The true value of good health is that it enhances the quality of life. Good health only really matters if it results in good living. Living well is what health is "for" -- contentment is the prize.
But a prize that proves ever elusive in the company of ambition. In Faust, Goethe suggested that we can't have both aspiration and contentment. If we are, indeed, forced to choose, it is a weighty doom we all shoulder. And so it is I wrestle with that weight we all wear: the choice between aspiration and satisfaction.
When I find aspiration unreasonably subordinating satisfaction, I reflect on how truly blessed I am with a loving, thriving, healthy family. In the immortal words of Mary Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life: After that, who cares? After that, perhaps no one should.
But alas, I do; for making a difference in the world matters to me. And the differences I manage to make never seem to matter enough.
On such days, past successes, such as they are, do turn rather toxic. On such days, a higher bar lies just ahead.
There are, I think, two dilemmas that complicate the reconciliation of wanting what we have and having what we want. Let's refer to them as the "night on call" conundrum, and the "wrinkle in time" fallacy.
The night-on-call conundrum makes it hard to want what we have. I noticed during my residency training that I could never fully appreciate a "good" night on call (e.g., no calamities, no unending barrage of admissions through the emergency department, some opportunity to put your head on a pillow without your beeper going off) until it was over. I suppose the problem was the same one expressed by Shakespeare through the mouth of Macbeth: "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus!" On call in the hospital, there is always the chance that the very next instant will bring a calamity. One is never "safely thus."
So even the most uneventful nights on call were a sequence of worried moments, waiting for the next potential disaster. Only after dawn, when the cavalry arrived in the form of the day shift, could one look back and appreciate a good night. The relevance of this, of course, is the risk of living all of life like that night on call.
The wrinkle in time fallacy makes it hard to have what we want. The aspirations of youth are prone to a potentially tragic distortion: We envision our current selves receiving future prizes. But, of course, the years and miles will exact their tribute. When the prizes come, will we retain the strength to hoist them?
When I fantasize about the ultimate prizes in my field -- a Nobel prize, for instance (and fantasy it is!) -- I picture myself in the Nobel laureate's shoes, but never with the Nobel laureate's feet! If anything, the feet involved are a younger version of my own; they certainly are not gnarled, arthritic, bunioned feet. But given the years and miles traversed on the way to Nobel prizes, those are apt to be the feet filling such shoes. I'll take my fantasy minus the fallen arches and plantar fasciitis, thank you very much.
The wrinkle with the wrinkle in time is that there is none. It takes time for the future to roll around, and when it does, the time in between has rolled right over us. There is no wrinkle in time, but our faces may well wear a whole new batch. Aspirations tend to omit the cost of time, miles, and all that wear and tear. We may get there, but the trouble is we may not recognize ourselves when we do.
Here, I think, is the rub: When we imagine our trials overcome, our tribulations resolved, and our aspirations fulfilled, we imagine ourselves at the finish line as we are at the starting line.
I miss my 20-10 vision and my pain-free knees. My knees are sore courtesy of years of running, martial arts, hiking, horseback riding, and skiing -- and the periodic addition of injury to these perennial insults. My eyes just aged, and suddenly my arms were too short to read in bed.
As the time horizon of my aspirations truncates, and I feel the weight of my first half-century, the luster of my aspirations is, I think, beginning to dim. I am less sure than I once was of how far I can go. And I have begun to realize how much less of me will be there at journey's end in any case.
This can at times make me gloomy, but I know it carries another, and better, implication. It means today deserves to be a good day. All the days that have come and gone convince me that at some point, today will be the good old days. When I am well reconciled to myself and my priorities, I have the chance to recognize that before tomorrow, and live it accordingly.
Dr. David L. Katz -- http://www.davidkatzmd.com/
1) next hill
the bar aloft yon
distant hill, a
beacon to my yearning will
for from such height, sure
none could fail the far
side of that bar assail
thus steadfast that
my course defines the
way my will, not
alas, these ardors
not at fault; yet
thwarted with no way
to go; the hill belied both
view and vault: the bar astrides the
2) other end
all but now
means that once
were ends; ambition
assaults all contentment
before I found
in the living
but when dreams
and hope confront
fears and doubt, they find
yet what from
afar is how things
are may be but
where roads bend;
so I may turn and choose
to learn my journey's
For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.