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Observations: The successful failure

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image The freshly refinished woodwork on the boat isn’t perfect but it’s better. I’m going to declare it a success. Mitch Traphagen Photo

What is your definition of success?


I took my first vacation in years last week. I know that it sometimes may appear that my entire life is a vacation, but the reality is rarely like that. In this job with The Observer News, work is never very far away — even if it occasionally reads pretty vacation-like.

My vacation was spent in a place thousands of people travel to for their vacations:  right here in Ruskin, Florida. Did anyone else notice that it seems as though the place filled up starting last weekend?  Traffic was heavier and lines were longer everywhere from the grocery stores to the Fish House to the Dog House on Shell Point Road.

I dedicated most of my vacation time to refinishing the woodwork on my boat. I hate painting, and I’m lousy at it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m a painting failure, but my impatience certainly stands in the way of what I would consider success. Painting is time-consuming, and I want nothing more than rush right to the end — something unfortunately not possible with such a pursuit.

The good thing about painting, however, is the copious amount of time available to think;  a necessity, it turned out, to keep my brain from imploding as I continuously looked ahead with dread to see how much work I still had left to do.

Somewhere along the aft end of the teak cap rail, as my brush applied a second coat of finish, I tried to think of something, anything that resembled an achievement that I could point to in my life. The mental list initially came up woefully short. A few moments and brush strokes later, I realized that the perhaps greatest thing I have ever accomplished ended as a failure. On the surface, that’s a little discouraging, but as a failure it was sort of a mixed bag.

A few years ago, I started a weekly newspaper in a very small town in Iowa. I was a stranger in a place that few people had ever heard of, let alone would move to. I spent two months preparing and laying the groundwork and then produced my first edition. It was cheaper and faster to mail the newspaper rather than have it delivered to driveways, so I mailed a free copy to the entire town (and a bunch of even smaller towns in the surrounding area).

I worked as hard as I could to cover the surprisingly many things that went on in that town, from city council meetings to the nearly endless school sporting events. Each and every week I did what I could to make the people in that town the stars of my new production. Within a month or so, nearly 100 percent of the households in town had subscribed to the paper and people graciously treated me as though I had spent my entire life there. Businesses started to advertise, including more than a few that had no real need to advertise. Three local, excellent writers signed on to write columns at no cost, and I hired a reporter to cover county meetings and help with the growing information load. By almost all accounts, things were going great.

But there was a price to pay. Each week on the day I went to press, I would work 30 or more hours straight without the chance to sleep. During football season, I added another overnight to my schedule in getting photo galleries and videos out to the newspaper website. Things looked great on the surface; but the town just wasn’t big enough to support what the paper was becoming and I couldn’t afford to hire the additional people it needed. I was publisher, editor, reporter, layout artist, and janitor; and I was wearing out. After ten months, I was getting sick every few weeks until I ended up with pneumonia — but my job offered no sick leave. My doctor said she would be surprised if I would live for another three months unless I changed my ways.

A week or so after that I found myself looking at a sailboat in the Florida Keys (if I was going to die anyway, I was determined to die with a sailboat). A weekend or two later, I was on Cape Cod handing over the cash for my dream boat — a very neglected 32-footer in which I saw the potential to sail to my dreams. Someday.

Two months later, after a year in print, I admitted that I did not have the ability to keep things going and so shut down the newspaper. It was successful, but there is no way around the fact that it was also a successful failure. That it ceased production is a pretty strong indicator of that.

All of my life I’ve had visions of what I would do “someday”. I always assumed I would have time to achieve the success I had envisioned. But now, I’m nearly 50 years old, and I realize that time is running out. I am now aware that I will never contribute to science, I won’t be a rock star, and I will never become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I am what I am and, perhaps, this will be the best I can do.

As the newly brushed finish glistened in the sunshine on to the boat’s woodwork, I realized that I’m OK with that. I’ve worked for some incredible companies. I’ve encountered amazing people and have made lifelong friends — friends who have made me a better person. I have a wonderful, loving family and I’m married to a woman who loves and supports me. I have I job I like, working for and with people I like very much. Also, I managed to sail that “dream boat”, scotched-taped together as it was, down from Cape Cod without killing myself or anyone else. Maybe someday it will sail Michelle and me off to new dreams. And I’m still proud of that little defunct weekly newspaper. To me, it feels like a success despite the fact that it was technically a failure. It provided new experiences and opportunities so varied; it led me to a boat on Cape Cod of all places and to walking the hallowed halls of the House of Representatives. Most importantly, it lead me back to my home in Florida. I’m now old enough and mature enough to know that all of that adds up to a success that I couldn’t possibly have imagined when I was younger. Perhaps not a success as defined by the world today where thousands of dollars have been eclipsed by millions of dollars which have been eclipsed by billions, but certainly more than enough to realize that I’m a lucky man. And I’m very grateful for it.

I’ve met a lot of happy people in this little corner of paradise. I’m thinking the happiness they exude comes from the same awareness that the definition of success is relative and it applies to each of us in our own ways. I like to think I’m finally following their lead.

The woodwork isn’t perfect, but it looks a lot better than it did before my vacation. On this beautiful day in February, I’m sitting in the cockpit, watching tourists at Little Harbor enjoy their own vacations while I enjoy the Florida sunshine as it gleams in the newly finished teak surrounding me. I think I’ll declare it, too, a success.

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