The pinball machine of success

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Remember those?

 

The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.

 

I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…

 

You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.

But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:

sexism

racism

chauvinism

chronic illness

mental illness

disability

surgeries

illness

unemployment

underemployment

debt

lack of self-confidence

language barriers

death of  a loved one

divorce

lack of education

lack of skills

lack of social capital

poverty

luck

timing

the larger economy

Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.

I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.

They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!

It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.

As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we  react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.

 

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But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.

So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.

In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.

Hah!

Talk to a person of color.

Talk to a woman of color.

Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.

Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.

Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.

We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…

We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.

 

We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless

 

When they’re not.

Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.

Same with your success.

 

 

 

One In Seven Americans Is Poor: The Frog And The Scorpion

American Poverty
Image by Monroe’s Dragonfly via Flickr

Nice statistic that.

The Census Bureau reports that one in seven American is now living in poverty. Millions can’t find work,  are losing their homes, living in their cars, bunking — when they can — with relatives. Millions are reaching for the thin, weak strained social safety net of food stamps and homeless shelters.

The shocking part?

That this should surprise anyone.

Recall the old joke, the friendship between the frog and the scorpion; as the frog swims across a river with the scorpion on its back, stung and dying. betrayed, he asks why. “I’m a scorpion. That’s what I do.”

In a nation where CEOs now crow with glee that they earn 300 times that of their lowest-paid workers, why would anyone find the growing chasm between the happy haves and the terrified have-nots unexpected?

The U.S. is a nation of laissez-faire capitalism. It’s a system as brutal and impersonal as a combustion engine. If you can find a way to accommodate its needs, you’re set. If not, you’re toast.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But no one, anywhere, should gasp in shock at the ruin so many people now face. They played “by the rules”.

There weren’t any.

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The More Successful Friend

Money (reais)
Image via Wikipedia

I had lunch last week with a friend whose income makes mine look like pocket change. She has great jewelry, belongs to a country club, lives in a lovely, large house.

It would be so easy to not be friends. It’s hard when someone is doing so much better. We live in a culture where acquisition and showing off the loot — I’ve blogged here about “haul videos” — remains a national pastime.

But I’m grateful she’s my friend because I have a lot to learn from her. I wish I commanded the higher fees she does for similar work, but she has a few in-demand specialties — while I remain a generalist. (My choice, my fault.) She’s also a super negotiator. She may well work many more hours, or work smarter.

It’s too easy to envy another without admitting what we bring, or don’t, to our own level of achievement.

Most important, she’s still a friend.

I’ve seen a larger income, a proxy for “success” and the putative higher value of the higher-earning half, split the best of buds with ruthless efficiency. I lost a dear friend of a decade after she married a high-earning corporate executive and moved to a lakeside mansion. I’d have been happy to remain friends long after she left her single-gal-in-the-Manhattan-studio days behind, the long, boozy nights when we prowled the bars or danced ’til dawn.

But she had clearly traded up. Her husband was one of those guys who likes to talk about how much money he makes. Not my style.

The nature of “success”, certainly in some cultures, is that it’s too often defined as purely financial, because in a capitalist system — capital = $$$$$ — s/he with the most capital wins.

But many of us bring extraordinary riches to the world, in social capital and intellectual prowess and kindness and generosity, creativity or gentleness with animals or small children or those with severe disabilities, humor and forgiveness, a whole basket of good(ness)s that aren’t quantifiable by economists or measurable in the visible status symbols of Birkin bags or Bentleys.

To me, the measure of one’s real success is the generosity to share it. Not simply, as some do, by writing a check to charity, but taking the time, as I’ve done many times over the years for less-experienced writers as well, to share the skills that help you achieve it.

Do you have a more successful friend who helps you? Or vice versa?