Defining Success

Try not to confine it or refine it too much

By Ron Ciancutti

Dad and Grandpa stand with their noses pressed against the glass. “I mean, the doc said it was going to be a boy, but wow, what a strapping boy! Look at the mitts on that bugger! Wait till he gets a bat in those hands—or pulls in a 50-yard pass in the end zone!”

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / monkeybusiness

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / monkeybusiness

He’s as tough-looking as his big sister was delicate, her tiny hands and feet like those of a future ballerina. Look how well she’s already doing in her lessons at 3. Ms. Donna says she could imagine her in the primary role in The Nutcracker by the time she is 7.

Great expectations. All parents have them. It’s only natural. We want our kids to have advantages and great rewards as they grow. We want them to be fulfilled, fully challenged, and feeling successful. They should have every opportunity we missed or elected not to take.

Years pass. The boy likes video games and lizards. Getting him to play T-ball was such a chore last season that Dad is thinking about foregoing the whole baseball idea this summer. And his ballerina sister? The parents tried to distract her with “tumbling” when she lost interest in ballet, but that died a quick death, too, and it’s looking like the only nutcracker she will be near anytime soon will be the one in the bowl of chestnuts on the dinner table come Thanksgiving.

Parents naturally panic at these passages in time because they serve as an indicator of the future. Maybe their son or daughter will never be all the things they could be, and we seem to be obsessed that they shouldn’t settle for an average life when an above-average existence is within reach. Should they study a little harder, practice a little more, spend a few more hours in the batting cages, or look longer in the recital practice mirror? Maybe but maybe not.

Don’t Force It
In my childhood and certainly in my parents’, the notion of resistance to the “wants and desires” from Mom and Dad were unheard of. We all recall that friend of ours who HAD to practice her piano every day. Or our friend who was constantly on camping retreats with the Scouts to earn the next badge. These kids had little to say about how they spent their time, and their parents felt strongly about discipline and persistence. To their credit, they gave their kids skills and habits that served them well later. Kids who had to follow those guidelines grew up to be punctual, well-employed, and typically self-sufficient. They never truly seemed care-free like kids should be. Sure, they were “happy,” but I wonder what a 30-year follow-up study would prove. Did they stay in jobs and marriages they didn’t enjoy because they’d been raised to do as they were told, as they were committed to, not what they “wanted?” Today’s youth and today’s new parents seem less prone to force an agenda on their kids.

But still, as the tree is bent, so shall it grow. After all, we know what’s best for them … right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Heck, I’m certainly no authority and probably have screwed my kids up as much as helped them, but I have to admit I am beginning to understand the thinking here. Parents need to provide guidance and an agenda, but if time passes and the kid hates practicing piano and it always ends in an argument, maybe the parents need to fold the cards and find something else. Demanding conformity doesn’t seem to make as much sense as it did years ago. Yeah, we’ve lowered the bar in a sense, but maybe this younger generation sees things more clearly than we ever did. Why force an absolutely indifferent constitution of resistance? It just builds resentment and internal conflict. Maybe that’s why a large population of today’s adults are medicating themselves for a rainbow of stress-related maladies.

See, I never sent my dogs to obedience school. In fact, I always hated when I was in the presence of a control freak who snapped his fingers and commanded his dog to “staaaayyyy.” The dog was robotic and always seemed nervous, like its spirit was broken. Most of my dogs were dumber than a sink. My lab was such a knucklehead that every time someone knocked at the front door, he would bark at the back door. Then, when he found no one there and returned to the front door, he saw the person who had knocked was just entering. My dog would start barking all over again like, “Hey, when did you get here?” He never caught on. I still miss that dog. But he never “performed below expectations” because I really had none. I just wanted an emotional companion that was as good to me as I was to him. I didn’t make him be something he wasn’t naturally. That’s how I knew his love was true.

I want my kids to have an enjoyable life that’s not fraught with debt and obligation. But that door swings both ways. And please understand I’m right there cheering with all of the fans who say that kids don’t have anywhere near the sense of obligation they once did, how they lack any agenda or idea of urgency in their lives. Yet still, I don’t want Father’s Day cards from kids whose mom had to say, “Now don’t forget to get your father a card for Sunday.” Like Fred Astaire used to say, “If it don’t swing on its own, baby, I’m outta here.”

No More, No Less
I think I accomplished good things in my career. I have plaques and trophies attesting to this, and I made some advances in my field that served the industry as a whole. I was upwardly mobile during my active years, made good marks in my education, was president of this and chairman of that, but I did those things because I wanted to. Sure, my parents encouraged me as a young man to excel, but they never made me, and that’s why “successful” remains a very subjective term to me.

There are thousands of stories that may not be your idea of success, but none should be considered more or less than any other.

Somewhere in this country a man is closing his small-profit diner for the night, and he’s happy to find enough money for the week to cover payroll and pay the rent on time. He hasn’t had a drop of liquor in 2 years, 4 months, and 12 days. He’s looking forward to his daughter and granddaughter visiting next week—a gift earned by his sobriety. He has every right to call himself successful. His daughter and granddaughter think so too.

I knew an engineer who was well-known and respected in his field. As his career was rising, his twin brother was found to have terminal cancer and had less than a year to live. The engineer quit his job, cashed out his 401K retirement plan, and moved in with his brother until he passed. The engineer hosted a generous funeral, paid all the medical bills, and still had money left over to buy a handsome headstone. He later returned to the workforce but never regained the momentum he had experienced before, yet I never heard him complain. This man absolutely defines success, merely by the character he exhibits.

Friends, it’s easy to allow yourself to be defined by your career, but remember there is more to it than that. Certainly, the job you worked towards and settled into makes a statement about you. But look a little deeper. Is your home kept with pride, no matter how big or small? Do teachers say nice things about your kids during parent/teacher conferences? Do you take care of your aging parents? Are you generous to those less fortunate? Are you living a more selfless than selfish life? Are you living within your means and minimizing your existing debt? Are you loyal to your spouse and always there for your children?

These measures define a life that’s been “successful.” I lost my dad more than 20 years ago to a sudden heart attack. I stood with my sisters, mother, and wife by his casket as hundreds of people waited in a line that stretched out the door and halfway around the block. Men and women from every walk of life hugged and pumped my hand as they gushed about my father. His workmates—both blue-collar and white-collar, his golf buddies, his poker buddies, his childhood friends, and so many more all had the nicest things to say with tear-soaked eyes. Terms like “heckuva guy” and “the best” were common, as well as “helped me with this” or “helped me with that.” My dad was a metallurgist with Ford Motor Company, a loyal company man for more than 40 years. He had a few patents to his name, but we only learned about those after he passed. He was beyond humble and disarmingly modest. A simple man of simple means who others called “a stand-up guy.”

I only hope I can be as successful as he was.

Ron Ciancutti worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He is now retired. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at