Success is not about being the absolute best. It is about being the best you can be in the face of unexpected obstacles.
Perhaps to people who know nothing about her, my mother seems like a failure. Her only conventional source of income is a part-time job at a deli located inside a supermarket, definitely not a job that anyone dreams of having. Despite the lack of glamour and luxury in her life, my mother considers herself to be just as successful as anyone with a college degree, a fancy job, and/or a six-figure income.
My mother recently declared to me that she, too, is qualified and accomplished enough to be chosen as Smith College’s commencement speaker. I was initially skeptical. My mother has never taken a class past the high school level. Although she was the best-performing student at her high school in rural Yugoslavia, her father didn’t allow her to go to college and live in her aunt’s apartment in Sarajevo because he thought that the only thing that could possibly come out of it was a grandchild born out of wedlock. Furthermore, although my mother is certainly an intelligent woman, she is not particularly intellectual. Her favorite author is Nicholas Sparks and she had never heard of the Sami people until she heard my father and me talking about them around three weeks ago. She would much rather watch the cinematic monstrosities produced by the Hallmark Channel than the news. Why would an elite and, quite frankly, pretentious institution such as Smith select someone like my mother to tell its graduates how to obtain something as abstract and ill-defined as success?
As she rambled about her qualifying characteristics, I began to see that my mother did indeed have plenty of lessons to offer on topics such as success and personal fulfillment. My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer twice in a span of five years. She views her good fortune of persevering through two rounds of cancer and chemotherapy as her greatest success.
Despite the facts that the state now considers her disabled and that she is physically capable of working only a few hours per week, my mother has continued to provide for her family. In fact, after my father’s early retirement due to his own disability, my mother has become the sole provider in our household. To supplement her meager earnings from the deli, my mother has adopted a fierce interest in the buying and reselling of antique items. Nearly every phone call with her consists of her telling me about the set of vintage canisters she just bought from Goodwill, or the silver she happened upon at Salvation Army. On the other end of the line, I politely feign interest while secretly wishing my mother would get back into gardening or rediscover her one-week-long obsession with yoga.
As much as the countless boxes of antiques that clutter our dining room table annoy me, I realize that those boxes are probably the only reason why I haven’t had to drop out of college yet. My mother counts those boxes and her ability to use them to support her children and husband — whom she often jokingly refers to as her third child — as her other great success.
Although my mother never went into any detail about what she would actually say in her hypothetical commencement speech, I can certainly guess. She would tell the soon-to-be graduates that success is not about being the absolute best. It is about being the best you can be in the face of unexpected obstacles.