Success & Wonder

I did not ask for success, I asked for wonder.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

I’ve noticed over the years that one of the topics which seems to come up a lot in conversations at bars, dinners, or hang outs, consistently seems to be success. When people you’ve not spoken to for a while ask how you are, and ask about work, there’s this hidden, unspoken question hanging in the air.

“How successful are you?”

One of the unspoken, but most inferred goals we’re meant to have in the Western world is to have a successful career. Even a successful life.

And the definition of success is usually the story fed to us by capitalist, even sometimes religious culture – a good job, partner, family, home. Progress up the ladder, get a good pension, retire.

This is the metric most of the western world uses for success. It’s what I was brought up to believe a successful life looked like.

Josh Radnor wrote a great article the other day on redefining metrics for success in our creative work, and it really resonated with me. I had a book release last year which didn’t do as well as I’d hoped or expected in terms of numbers – money, sales, following – but had a deep impact on those who did read it.

However, at the time, I felt a failure. I felt I was a poor writer, a fake, had the talk but not the talent. I also couldn’t find a job at the time, which made me feel even more of a failure. I eventually found a good job, and I began writing again.

But it took nearly 18 months to write regularly again. It was only when I changed my metric of success, and traded numbers for depth, the millions of sales for the deep impact on an individual life, and wrote for myself again, that I began to find that joy again.

And now, as I tentatively begin writing again, reach another personal and professional crossroads, and begin to enter my forties, I’ve been pondering more and more the question of what makes a successful life.

Josh’s article brought this into focus. I’ve said many times the creative life, and our life’s journeys are inexorably tied together. What we create comes out of who we are, so inevitably, what we create, and our creative journey, will reflect much of our personal journey – and vice versa.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just what I want to do with my life. I don’t feel tied to my job, or to my current location, or to any vocation right now.

There is freedom in this place, but also no direction. And its’ left me thinking about both the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of life I want to create for myself.

What does a successful life look like for me?

I still have hopes, dreams, aspirations – but I also have the humbling lessons of my past to remind me that sometimes hopes, dreams and aspirations don’t work out the way you expect or desire.

As I reflect on this, I am seeing that my greatest desire, is to become the best version of myself. To create and cultivate a life which allows me to discover and live out my best life, and be able to look back at a life lived well.

What I am only now beginning to appreciate is that I have agency not only over what I do with my life, but in defining what a successful life, a life lived well, looks like for me. This is both exhilarating, empowering and terrifying – because so much of it is on me.

However, I’m now experienced enough to know there are variables, often unexpected circumstances out of my control which can also have an impact on where my story goes, and who I become.

I am both more powerful than I like to admit, but have less control than might be comfortable.

That said, having been down the valley before and survived, and even thrived, I’m much more able to open my hands and accept the unknown which lies ahead. Embrace the uncertainty, and find freedom in it.

It’s in the uncertainty I might find the wonder.

And maybe wonder is what I’m really searching for.


Picture Source: Mourgefile

Share this post:


  1. Mikaela on September 9, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    Beautifully written, James!

  2. Ruth on October 20, 2018 at 10:18 am

    I really enjoyed this, James, particularly “I am both more powerful than I like to admit, but have less control than might be comfortable” – what a brilliant line!

    I’m on a similar journey myself, having discussed feeling pressure with my counsellor and her response being “what do YOU want?”, it has forced me to look at why I was getting so hung up on what everyone else was doing.

    Wishing you all the best.

    • James Prescott on October 20, 2018 at 10:23 am

      Hey Ruth, thanks for this kind comment. One thing I really struggle with is not just knowing what I want, but having any confidence or drive or motivation to even try and make it possible. Great comment.

Leave a Comment