Examining Life's 'What Ifs'
What defines success? Is it fame, wealth, love or finding inner peace?
We all have different definitions for it, and we all take unique paths to get there.
Take my friend for example. At 17, she was discovered by the Elite Modeling Agency and offered an all-expense paid trip to Paris to pursue her big break. During the 80s, the industry classified her as exotic because of her brown hair and brown eyes. At that time, there was a beauty ideal transition from Christie Brinkley to Christy Turlington. But here’s the thing. Her brain was as powerful as her beauty, and she was offered an academic scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. That’s the fork in the road, my friends. Now, she was from an upper middle-class family, so unlike the girl with a pretty face, five dollars in her pocket and a bus ticket to the Big Apple, she could afford to pursue her dreams. Her parents did not discourage her, but they did not encourage her either. Going to college was risk free, while galivanting off to Paris was wild and unknown. The concept of a “Gap Year” didn’t really exist in the late 80s. Thankfully for me, she chose a college education over modeling, and that is where I met my future roommate and lifelong dearest confidante. She was never the type to implode chasing the dragon, living the life of “GIA,” but sometimes she thinks about the path not taken -- the joie de vivre life of a young model living in Paris. She's not alone. Another one of our hipster buddies was in a popular college rock band that opened for the Violent Femmes. They were about to hit it big.
That is, until he heard that voice from his parents, both doctors, urging him to pursue the safe path -- a graduate degree from a prestigious university. He cut his hair, put down his beloved guitar, left the band to pursue his Ph.D., and the group dissolved. Every now and then, he wistfully contemplates what could have been while strumming Poison’s ballad, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which kinda sums it up. Again, we reach a pivotal life moment. I have also personally experienced this crossroad. In my early 20s, I had a couple shots at fame that I ultimately didn't pursue. The grunge music scene in Chicago in the mid 90s was booming with artistic, provocative energy. Musically, our band Frumunda was a complete disaster. But, if you listen to some of the greatest rock bands' singers, sometimes their success is more about the X factor than the melody. Think Mick Jagger. He is not an impressive singer, but he is an astonishing entertainer. There was no annoying autotune back then overproducing the music. It was raw and naughty. Frumunda had charisma. As the lead singer, my first and defining stage moment was lactating on the audience. Our brilliant and outrageous drummer was an engineer, and he crafted a custom-made industrial metal bra with exploding milk jugs that sprayed unsuspecting spectators. We catapulted on to the scene and immediately built a following. Sadly, at the time I was plagued with a double disaster that destroyed the band: an unsupportive, obsessive-compulsive, jealous boyfriend and my own pitiable insecurity of caring too much about what people thought. Wearing bikinis made of cantaloupes and candy necklaces is not what nice, educated Jewish girls do when they want to find respectable husbands. So, I quit, pursued a graduate degree in education and turned my focus toward inspiring America’s inner-city gang-compromised youth in Chicago. Then, the opportunity to achieve a different long-forgotten dream struck out of nowhere when I met a successful talent agent at my gym. The agent had been observing my animated personality over a period of months, and one day she asked, “Are you a performer?” I replied, I was once, but my mother told me I wasn’t good enough. She said, “I had the same mother. I’d love to represent you. I can make you into an actress.” I was really excited and asked the talent agent if I could chase my dream part-time after my day job. Her answer was resounding and firm. No. Becoming a performer was a full-time, all-in pursuit, she said. Again friends, the metaphorical fork in the road. I turned her down and continued teaching, then later transitioned into a successful 25-year career in pharmaceuticals. I will never know if the road less traveled could have led to me becoming a celebrity. So, what is the epilogue for the wannabe model, rock star and starlet-singer/actress? All three of us had the financial means to give fame our best shot and delay the future. But that internal self-regulating conformist made us all pursue the safety of the lane often taken. The model became a published neuroscientist, the rock star is a professor at the very same university where he earned that Ph.D., and I became an award-winning salesperson after several years of teaching. If we could revisit the past, would we alter the journey? And would that future be any rosier? After a lifetime of following celebrities and their lifestyles in gossip rags, it seems to me that the pursuit of fame and money doesn't make anyone’s existence better. The thought of having my every word and move dissected and commented on by the public in our social-media culture would be miserable.
It's always nice to dream about what could have been. But I will take “me” and the wild journey that led me to where I am today, because I am happy. And happiness is the ultimate definition of success.