Does Success in One Area Mean Failure In Another?

Shonda Rhimes speaks at Dartmouth

Shonda Rhimes’ Dartmouth commencement speech just hit Medium. It’s ostensibly posted by Ms. Rhimes herself, which — I mean, I really want to break this down for a minute, she could have picked anywhere to post her speech, anywhere from HuffPo to The Atlantic to Kindle Singles, and she picked Medium? (Does Shonda Rhimes really need a gatekeeper-free publishing platform to share her message?)

Anyway, the speech is great, and the pull quote about “dreamers vs. doers” works, but to me, the most interesting part of the speech was the section that began:

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing in another area of my life.

That is the truth, right there.

I used to joke that “everybody got two,” which I think I actually cribbed from David Sedaris’s Four Burner Theory: you have four stove burners in your life (family, friends, health, and work) and you can only keep two burners on at any one time. I chose to re-interpret that as “you get two things to focus on in your life,” and in my case it was my office job and putting a song a week on the internet, and during that time I wasn’t focusing much on family or friends.

Now I think my “two” are work and friendships/relationships, which means that Mint is flailing its arms because I’m exceeding my spending goal on drinking sake mojitos. But I absolutely get what Shonda Rhimes is telling the Dartmouth graduates: when you do well in one area of your life, something else has to fall away. When you do more work, you read fewer books. When you spend more time with friends and family, you spend less time exercising. The more people you have at your table, the more you’re going to overspend on food.

In terms of finances, it seems like the more successful you become in any area of your life, the more you’re willing to take on a little debt to maintain that success. Parents go into debt for their kids, entrepreneurs go into debt for their businesses, Dartmouth students go into debt to stay on the top of the educational game. I could pay down my credit cards faster if I made my “two” work and saving money, but that’s not the choice I’m making right now.

What do you all think? Can you succeed at something without failing at something else? Do we really only get “two,” and have to let the rest go?


10 Comments / Post A Comment

moreadventurous (#4,956)

This sort of question always reminds me of the 30 Rock scene where Liz Lemon is chasing after Floyd in the airport and has to scarf down her sandwich day sandwich.

It was my FB prof pic when I was over-extended senior year of college and ruining friendships / not sleeping ever.

AKA – I totally agree with Shonda and it’s great that she acknowledges it. I think money and health often get the short stick. And relationships too, but that usually takes a bit of retrospective thinking to realize, for me at least.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

I think this idea is probably the most apt when you have kids, and I can’t speak to that now. Right now I can focus on all of those things (family, friends, career, health)–I just can’t give 100%. I don’t consider that “failing,” though. There’s a lot of middle ground between being wildly successful at something and failing at it.

garli (#4,150)

@Vib G Yor I think at some point you need to figure out a way to combine things you care about. The easiest (for me) will always be friends/family and health. I can go surfing or biking and healthy meals while I spend time with my husband. Or I’ve been known to work on work stuff at home (I know, I know) in the backyard while my husband works on the yard. I play team sports or train for team sports for some of my best friends. Career is hard to combine with anything but that’s what work friends are for.

I’m not saying I’m a superstar at anything but they all go well enough to make me happy, so I’ll take it as a victory.

la_di_da (#1,425)

I think, to continue the metaphor, it depends on how hot the fire is going under your pots. I think you can be really good at your job, and have great relationships and good health, but, like, in a place with a slower pace, a low burn thing. Also, it’s hard to start a relationship or new job or social life with friends, but once it’s all established it gets easier. This is my theory. Don’t disillusion me yet.

Whoa. It’s like you anticipated the post that I have cued up for later! My answer is, it depends how you define success. I agree with la_di_da – it’s about how you define success. You can have more than two things if you don’t expect to be extraordinary at all of them. And sometimes, being just pretty good, or good enough for your own satisfaction, is kinda great.

Runawaytwin (#2,693)

yes this is true. I threw everyhting into a huge overwhelming art project last year while maintaing my 70+ hour a week corporate Manhattan job. (and not mixing the two) While I was able almost to be successful at both- I was hemorrhaging money and my personal relationships were not existent. Also the week of the reveal of my project I came down with the worst flu of my life and pretty much missed the whole event. Ill never forget it and always regret it. ‘Next time’ I have to take it down a notch

jennonthego (#5,366)

This reminds me of that line from Sex and the City. Carrie says that you can only have two of the three: a good apartment, good job/work, good relationship. When the third one starts going well, then one of the other two is about to start faltering. It’s been that way for me for YEARS.

Nicole, that last tag is begging for its own post.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@avianbonesyndrome Unfortunately it has very little to do with money! Here’s the short version: at Miami of Ohio, there’s the big graduation ceremony as well as a bunch of little graduation ceremonies for each college/school. However, even the little graduation ceremonies are pretty big; I was on the School of Fine Arts graduation ceremony planning committee, and we worked pretty much non-stop for the two weeks up to graduation. I was also hired to provide music for the Honors College graduation ceremony. And, of course, all of this was going on at the same time as Finals and “move all your stuff out of the dorms” week.

I played the Honors College graduation ceremony, attended the School of Fine Arts graduation ceremony, and then went to the emergency room and missed the all-school commencement. Turns out I had “exhaustion.” It’s a real thing, I guess! Ended up spending most of the next two weeks in bed.

eemusings (#6,021)

I have definitely learned that you need to look at balance over the long term. I am not sure if two is the maximum – though that certainly seems logical? If I think about the main things in daily life to juggle: work, household, social life, fitness, eating well, ME time … it definitely seems impossible to do well at more than 2or 3 of them at once.

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