I thought I knew
When I was ten or eleven years old, just before I started getting seriously interested in girls, I used to lie awake at night imagining my success in sports.
I would conjure up a series of amazing swivel-hipped moves and leaping catches on the football field, as I took myself and a succession of teams through high school, college and professional championships. Once I'd scored the final touchdown at the end of the perfect season, I'd begin again with another sport -- tennis, basketball, baseball.
If I were awake long enough and had exhausted the sports to which I was devoted, I'd find myself climbing the ladder in another field--as a writer, or a doctor.
I thought I knew what success was then. And I also knew, though I don't think I could've put it in words, that coming to the "top of your field" (as my surgeon father might have said) really leaves something to be desired. At 11, I thought that "success" meant arriving at the top of my game in the second, third, or fourth sport.
But even before I was in college, I began to question this notion, in fact to raise questions, at least in my own mind, about the purpose as well as the meaning of success. Other ideas, entirely different, though still inchoate definitions, began to come to me. Though I still appreciated winning awards and prizes, and, yes, tennis matches and basketball games as well, I found myself questioning, and was fascinated by, the limitations of achievement. In the papers I wrote at Harvard College -- a good place for a successful young man to go -- these concerns kept appearing. One paper I wrote on John Keats was called "The Insufficiency of Excellence."
My new heroes were not high scorers or even high achievers, but the freedom riders who were beginning to integrate schools and lunch counters in the South: brave, selfless, generous people, devoting themselves to fairness and justice.
I remember about that time having an impassioned discussion with my father about what was most important in life. He spoke about professional achievement; I told him -- crying, I believe now, because I felt misunderstood and mourned his inattention to what was so central and poignant for me -- that love was most important, the only true measure of success.
Many years later, excellence is still important in everything I do: the choice of the right word, the accurate diagnosis, the appropriate treatment, the appropriate answer to a heartfelt question.
But even more important is the attention I bring to those words, and especially the love and care I bring to those people whom I am diagnosing and treating and teaching; in fact to everyone I know and meet. I ask myself if what I'm doing is serving and honoring them, helping them to discover who they are meant to be, to feel their own capacity for love.
If it's not, there's really no success. If it is, I'm delighted.
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