Warsaw Dispatch: Success, a Report (12/29/13)


My Polish friends tell me that it’s bad luck to end the year without tying up loose ends. Particularly true for financial matters, this maxim also holds for promises and commitments of all stripes, everything from the inconsequential to the substantial. I grew up eating black-eyed peas and collard greens every New Year’s Day to lock in luck and prosperity for the coming year, and the practice took so solidly that I have searched markets across the globe for these ingredients as the year changes over, “just to make sure.” It’s safe to say that I am nothing if not at least susceptible to end of the year good luck rituals. Thus, although I am loathe for several reasons to report back, and I am, moreover, four weeks late in doing so, before we close the door on 2013, I offer the following report for the experiment I began in mid-October. The experiment’s goal: determine whether my habits are responsible for my apparent failure to be “super successful.”

1. Executive Summary

Yes, my ways of being in the world combine with accidents of birth to create my failure.

2. Field Notes

I never, if given a choice–including during the course of this experiment–accomplish the five things “super successful” people do before 8 a.m.: 1) exercise, 2) map out my day, 3) eat a healthy breakfast 4) visualize, and 5) tackle the toughest to-do’s. I did give it the old college try for this experiment, however.

  • The eve of Day 1 led to this: So depressed at midnight by the thought of rising at 5:45 a.m. and forcing myself into someone else’s success-shoes that I have begun constructing rationalizations for my failure to adhere to the experiment, technicalities that would keep me in compliance, and innovations that would allow me to preserve the spirit of the endeavor. Insight: Rubbing up against restraint breeds creativity.
  • Day 1: I remembered “healthy breakfast” in time to grab tea and pain au chocolate on the way to Polish class, banking on antioxidants to nourish and caffeine and sugar to sustain. By 1pm, a mere five hours behind schedule, I had both attended Polish class and accomplished the Key 5. I had also consumed three times my usual allotment of caffeine, and I experienced a compelling urge to buy things and/or meet colleagues for happy hour. At 1 p.m. Perhaps this is what they call a three-martini lunch? I resisted the urge both to shop and to swill vodka and took a nap instead. Notably my spirits were a fruitful combination of cheer and rebellious gung-ho-ness when I conked out at 1:30 p.m. Insight: Too sleepy to formulate one, but something about capitalism, rather than religion, being the opiate of the masses swirled in my head as I nodded off.
  • Day 2: 5:45 a.m. rolled around and still no REM. Rather than risk violating my rule about rising rather than staying up to accomplish the Key 5, I turned off the alarm, and rose, after a delightful four hours of sleep, at 9:45 a.m. roughly ready to address the day and my rapidly failing experiment. A recalibration of the toughest to-do item required me to replace “creative work” in the number 1 slot with “sleep and rise in time to achieve Key 5 by 8 am.” I moved “don’t beat yourself up” to slot number 2 from somewhere further down in the top ten, and promptly commenced visualizing success. Visualizing success, particularly after a spin ’round FB with this baggage in tow, proved as difficult as adjusting my sleep schedule. Nonetheless, by 12:58 p.m., I had managed three of the Key 5: a healthy breakfast, visualizing personally meaningful success, and my original most difficult thing aka my creative practice, leaving only exercise and mapping out my day, both of which I promptly did, putting me, at 2 pm, only six hours behind schedule on Day 2. Insight: Success, like democracy in the US, has been coopted by capitalism, its expression so narrowly defined as to become stultifying.
  • Day 3: I have started to lose track. I think my field notes are on receipts I have recycled. Insight: A Facebook quiz tells me I’m Swedish.

3. Side Bar

I am the family black sheep, the prodigal, the disowned one, the outsider. “Yeah, right. Blacksheep, PhD,” a colleague once returned wryly in response to my assertion. It’s nonetheless true. My father practiced the Key 5 every day of his professional life, and by many measures, particularly financial ones, he is a grand success. I was introduced to the Key 5, as well as to compound interest, and the Protestant work ethic about the time I developed my sense of ambition, which is to say in utero. Perhaps they are related. By eighteen months, when I was potty-trained, I regularly accompanied my father to work. Nothing less than greatness, and by this we mean financial success and publicly recognized power, was expected of me. US President would do providing World Supreme Leader was still not available when I came of age. I began well enough as two-term–and first female–president of my high school class, but by the time I turned eighteen, I was clearly on a road to nowhere. Never mind Stanford; my politics propelled me to take my entire senior year pass/fail to protest a system–grades–that tends to cultivate expected responses to important questions à la Pavlov’s dog. Moreover, the first thing I did when I graduated was to board a plane for Southeast Asia to volunteer. Yes, that means work for free, living stipend aside. Not only did I fail to major in engineering, I failed to consider securing a job at Oracle or MicroSoft or even at a management consulting firm, when such jobs were being handed out like candy to people like me, even given my politics. Worse, following my stint as a volunteer, I took time to explore the world, hitchhiking from Perth to Darwin, wandering about New Zealand, visiting far-flung college friends. “You’ve had more vacation in your short life than I have had in all of mine,” dear father has chided. We can also discount my stint on Wall St. following grad degree number one, my stint as a dot.com mogul following Wall St., and just about anything else that held promise. They didn’t stick.

4. Living the Dream

At 6 a.m., stress percolates in urban and suburban landscapes on par with coffee. I can feel it. Not enough sleep. No good breakfast. Kids were ornery. Bus was late. Fought with spouse. My boss will kill me if I don’t finish this report. I hate my job. Forgot my deodorant. Ugh, it’s Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday. T.G.I.F. Why would anyone, given an option, want to participate in this stew? When I wake at 10/11/noon, the air is clear. I rise to peace and quiet. Nobody clicks around in frenzied haste above me. Grumpy people are gone from the bus and the streets. My critters are so happy I’m awake that they cavort about in anticipation of walks and treats. But not before a good long cuddle. Okay, the critters will behave this way at any hour I rise, but my response to them differs depending on the hour. And their spirits quickly align with my own. Ever seen a cat turned bear? Likewise, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., the energy in the air is clear. Whatever horrible pop music my neighbor enjoys has ceased, the smoking neighbor has put the day’s pack away, the critters are cuddled up, and I am certain that it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect anything of me; so, I don’t respond. My time is my own. Like midday, midnight is the cleanest time of the day energy-wise. Time is not only mine, it’s clear and conducive to creativity.

5. Questions

Who are these super successful people? What is their support structure: dutiful wives? servants? helpers? a staff? a very large bankroll? By what metric are they successful and at whose expense?

6. Mentally Strong People

Suffice it to say that I am not a mentally strong person.

7. Grammar

Adjectives give me trouble. They confuse me. Verbs, not so much. I want; I love; I hate; I do. You give; you make; you take. This I get. But “successful” invites subjectivity. Interpretation. Power determines meaning. I crave action not assessment.

Post Script

I took the photo for this piece in a women’s maximum security prison in Warsaw, where I had gone to observe an art workshop and where I hope to conduct one of my own. One woman was in for life because she killed two people after digging their graves. One was in for twenty-five years because, when she was seventeen, she along with several others killed someone for money. One was in because she non-fatally stabbed her husband in a domestic dispute. She has a three year old son. Two were in for drugs. One of these two has traveled the world as an airline attendant and speaks several languages. She started dealing drugs after she became disfigured in a bomb blast related to an Israeli military training exercise, and her Israeli boyfriend and his family abandoned her. On the day I visited the prison, the artist in charge of the workshop distributed knives, needles, and scissors to these women and asked them to make–from jumpsuits and stuffed animals–skins that reflected their sense of themselves. Our time together was delightful. We did not discuss success, but we did discuss daily habits. This workshop was anomalous to their routine. These women rise at 7 a.m. every day. Sometimes they walk for half an hour at 8:00 a.m. They spend almost all their time, including meals, in their cells with doors closed and locked. Lights out at 10:30 p.m.


originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on December 29, 2013

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