Redefining the Notion of Success

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “success” feels like for me and for the farm.  I think part of this fascination has been a direct result of my new obsession with constantly listening to farming-related podcasts as I work.  This is a double edged sword. Typically, to become a guest on one of these podcasts, you need to be a pretty “successful” farmer in some way. On some days these podcasts can be inspirational and provide me a cornucopia of ideas to try out on our little farm.  On other days, though, listening to all these people’s seemingly instant success just really pisses me off. What is it about other people being successful that, on our worst days at least, make us intensely, irrationally, immaturely jealous?

I mean, how in the hell can these people be so successful, so quickly?  What are they doing that I’m not doing? What am I doing that I shouldn’t be?  What’s closer to the truth is that we’re all slogging through the swamp of life.  Everyone’s boots get stuck in the mud, everyone’s torso is covered in the same mosquito bites, and everyone’s sweaty body smells disgusting at the end of the journey.  Some of us just do a better job of hiding all the unpleasantries of the struggle, and others of us probably focus too much of our attention on them. The context of my swamp might be different than yours, but it’s still pretty much a swamp.  The internet and our constant intake of everyone’s “content” only magnifies this problem of uncontextualized comparison. We all promote the story that we want to tell, and we try to leave out the icky parts that we’re embarrassed about.

So when I think about success for me and for the farm, I try to get past this tendency to base my own feelings of success on how others have attempted to define it for themselves.  Success could be related to the amount of money we make, or how many pounds of lettuce I sell in a given week, or how many weddings Audra can book in the summer months. When we first started this farm journey, I think my notions of success were similar.  As we continue, though, I wonder if success is how well we can maintain our work/life balance, how well we take care of our customers, how happy we are in doing this difficult, unpredictable work. And maybe success is a mixture of all these things, plus many more.  

When I first graduated college, I was pretty naive.  I thought I was going to get a teaching job and slowly but surely I would help to change the world by better preparing the next generation. No matter how much the bureaucrats try to quantify the “success” of teachers and schools, there are so many things that we do in education that can’t truly be measured.  The further I go into my teaching career, the more I’ve come to realize that the things that matter most are the ones that are hardest to put on a spreadsheet or a school report card.  This inability to truly measure success as a teacher is part of what makes it such a delightfully frustrating profession.

Farming is maybe not so different.  Sure, we can weigh and count everything we produce, we can pull numbers from Quickbooks to track our sales of each product and how much we sold to each customer, but are those things really what our business’s success should be grounded in?  What about the value we contribute to our community? Are people eating healthier because of our toils? Do we create joy for people who value keeping more money in our local communities? Are we also able to feed the souls of those who eat our food, who speak to us at the market, who come and spend an evening on the farm?  How can we even begin to measure those things? Should we even try?

I heard someone say the other day (most likely on a podcast!) that they knew that they couldn’t change the world, but they were certain that they could change their world.  I’ve been thinking about that statement a lot lately.  I wonder if more of us thought like this, how much better of a world would we have?  Changing the world seems daunting and unlikely, a recipe for giving up quickly. But my world?  Yeah, I can probably have some impact there–in my home, on my farm, within my little community.  I could maybe find success with that goal. But I still don’t know what “success” would actually look like, what it would feel like in my hands, what it would sound like as it flows through my ears.  

Maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be.  Maybe success cannot and should not be a static thing, a destination.  Maybe success itself is a journey as well? Is it possible that the moment that we acknowledge that we’ve become successful that we suddenly become a little less likely to maintain that success?  Or is it that successful people just want to continue to become more and more successful, and can rarely settle for today’s success as the end game?

This is my concern.  Even if our farm becomes more like the successful ones I hear about on all these podcasts, will I even realize it when it comes?  Or will I be so lost in the pursuit that I can’t even enjoy the fruits of our labor? Once I get there, will it be as important to me as it is right now?  I’ve known people who have trained themselves to be afraid of success. They’ve provided themselves with the perfect subconscious excuse to give up easily or not even try.  But don’t confuse my mixed emotions for fear. We desperately want this farm to be successful. And we’re working hard every day to make that a possibility. Maybe by the time we get there, I’ll be able to identify it.  As we crest the hill, I’ll pause, and sigh, and say, “Oh yeah, there it is.” And then, quickly after, we’ll continue down the road to see if we recognize what’s over the next hill.

Photos by Sara Gardner Photography.