How do you know when you’ve made it? When can you confidently call yourself a success? According to current societal trends, there’s about five distinct ways to find out. If you’re swimming in a ton of cash. It doesn’t even have to be cold hard paper, but if you’re making money by the millions, you’re considered successful. If you have a great job that allows you to pay your bills, you’re successful. If you excel academically and have exceptional academic accolades, you will be considered successful. As you grow up and reach a certain age, having a family would put you in the successful category. From beauty, to fame, to exposure and number of friends, the categorization of success differs wherever you go. However, one sure way to know that you’ve succeeded in some way is if people are coming to you for guidance. They’ll want tips on how to get where you are, and to know how you approached a specific situation. They’ll want to dress like you dress and talk like you talk. They’ll come to you for advice and hang on to every single word you say because in that particular way, you represent success.
Which is why I was perplexed for the longest time about the lady next door. I could see no way in which she was successful. Tall, dark-skinned and over-weight, she wasn’t employed and had not been since she had her second child. She often dressed in ragged old clothes and walked around the neighborhood with unkempt hair and muddy shoes. Her phone conversations could be heard all the way from the main road. Her children were more often than not loitering around the neighborhood naked, muddy and usually with snot running down their nostrils. A quick look at her front yard might have you confusing it with a dumping site; the overgrown grass failed to cover up used diapers, black polythene bags with week-old water stagnated in them and fresh fruit peels littering the compound. Her husband, also unemployed, could be found at any given time on any given day of the week, sitting outside a bar or next to one of the local kitchens ordering for the famous “rolex”. It probably was his coping mechanism to get away from his ever-crying children and several utility company field officials that often came by to hand him a disconnection notice due to failure or extended delay in paying the bills.
What left me perplexed in particular about Ms. Lady next door was that people came to her for advice! It wasn’t uncommon to find one of those very large fancy cars parked right outside her gate, the owner an equally posh and refined lady or couple. Probably due to a semblance of shame, she would seat her visitors on plastic white chairs out in her front yard in the grass-less patch that was once a gully for water but had been enlarged by children playing in it. (I once went over to congratulate her upon the birth of her second child; the inside of the house was not only smaller, but also worse than the outside of the house.) These guests often purchased some of the ‘organic” home-made juice she sold and carried it home along with the advice she dished out. It was also not uncommon, during one of her broadcasted phone calls, to hear her give advice to a breast-feeding mother on how to properly breastfeed, pregnant ladies on how to handle the transition from delivery, mothers who were having problems with getting their infant children to eat healthy as well as wives with marital issues. Each of these conversations was always punctuated with several loud and high pitched laughs, various exclamations of surprise or shock, and sounds of chewing on something. I wondered how, after seeing the mess that was her life, any one could take advice from her! Wasn’t the reason people got advice from someone who had it all together because they had it all together, or at least appeared to? Weren’t you supposed to be successful?
For months, I wondered silently and curiously. Did these people not see what I saw? Did they just not care? Were such conditions a normal occurrence in their lives and so not a shock? Or did they not even notice? Was this lady conducting some sort of con-artist business in broad day light? Was there something she was putting in that “organic” juice?
It wasn’t until I had an unexpected run-in with the children that it all made sense. Ms. Lady next door might not be Beyoncé or Indra Nooyi but she was successful in her own right. Her children, once cleaned up, were really polite and friendly. She was pursuing her P.H.D. Her husband was a good father, always playing with the children whenever he was home. And they were happy! Not one night would go by without hearing laughter come out of their home. She had some little sure victories tucked into her belt; you just had to look a little closer to see. Those who did saw it, and kept coming back.
It’s so easy to dismiss someone because they are not shiny on the surface. It’s so easy to over-look someone because they don’t tick any of the “successful” boxes. But if you took the time to dig just a little deeper, you just may be surprised.