Success or Failure—Neither Reflect On You

Just a few weeks ago, the writer Austin Murphy wrote an insightful, revealing article for The Atlantic that personalized the changing nature of the economic and technological landscape in the 21st-century western world. Murphy is one of the most successful sportswriters of his generation. He worked for Sports Illustrated for 33 years. He penned some 140 cover stories. He’d published 6 books. He’d interviewed 5 presidents. And yet—and this is the subject of the piece—now he finds himself delivering packages for Amazon for a living.

A job is a job, of course, but the man whose job used to involve trips to France with an expense account to cover the Tour de France now had a job where he struggled to find places to use the bathroom during the day.

The most interesting part of the piece is that it’s not a criticism of Amazon or a pity party for the author. In fact, it’s quite philosophical. Particularly this passage:

“Lurching west in stop-and-go traffic on I-80 that morning, bound for Berkeley and a day of delivering in the rain, I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.”

There is a beautiful meditation from Marcus Aurelius along the same lines. “A rock thrown in the air,” he says, “it loses nothing by coming down, gained nothing by going up.” This is easy to say, and easy to forget, but it’s an essential bit of perspective that both wards off ego when things are going well and protects us against depression when we experience setbacks.

We have to remember that external events, possessions, status markers, achievements don’t change us. An impressive job doesn’t make us an impressive person, just as a bad review doesn’t mean we’re without talent. Having a lot of money doesn’t make us special and not having money doesn’t make us worthless. Up, down, middling along—we are not changed by our status.

Only our actions and our choices reflect on who we are. Only what we are doing right now in the present moment matters—not the past, not the extrapolated future. And actually not even that—it’s how we are doing what we are doing that matters. Our feet are the same, wherever we are, regardless of the lofty heights we’ve climbed or darkened depths we’ve fallen to.

Don’t forget that. Because in it is strength and freedom.

P.S. This was originally sent on January 31st, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.