Defining a Successful Career

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

I went on an adventure in early December. Let’s begin the tale at the beginning: a few years ago I learned that a professor at Marquette University had a collection of Tolkien manuscripts that he periodically allowed individuals to tour. It took me approximately 5 seconds to arrange a date and time for the next private exhibition. 

Unfortunately, the date and time were in 2020. Two polite reschedules later, he stopped sending emails of new dates. No one knew when the collection would be viewed again—why continue pretending we did?

All this led me to check the status in November, and what do you know? The collection was out for a big exhibition at the university until Christmastime, and tickets were available. I chose to make it a whole day of adventure by also booking an Amtrak to Milwaukee. Train rides, Tolkien manuscripts, and no driving headaches on I94 between two cities? I was IN. 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Tolkien rocked my world in 2001 when I first met his work. He did it again in 2022 last month, when I can say that after 21 years of devoted passion, I’m pretty well acquainted with that work.

I don’t know your lifelong struggles, but I have some typical ones for an enneagram 5. The zeal to be seen as competent. The deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. These two join forces to haunt me with my greatest fears. What if I never “make my mark”? What if I never live up to that “promising future” people talked about so long ago? What if, after all, I’m only mediocre at everything I’ve done, personally and professionally?

At my age, these things should be past tense, after all, and still searching the horizon for promise seems a fool’s errand. 

The thoughts have haunted my last couple years, especially. Other people wept at Hamilton when his son died. (OK, I wept then too—I’m not heartless.) The part that had me sobbing? When Burr bows his head and recognizes in the despair of the too late—“I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” Scarcity mindset, with tragic results, right there for all of us caught in it to see. The world is wide, but some of us have more Aaron Burr in us than we can comfortably handle.

Back to Tolkien. A man so enamored with the world of Middle-earth he was building that he created languages for it. Detailed, logically-cohesive languages. So in love with his hobbits be calculated the stride of a hobbit and the ground one could reasonably cover so that the distances in his writing were manageable in “real” life. So committed he created maps and diaries that he singed, tore, dyed, and dampened in order to make the antiquity of them real. He charted the moon phases and years and days of events in his created world so that his prophesies would coincide, again, in “real” life. No created world in literature has this level of detail and accuracy, which contributes enormously to making his work feel “right” to his readers. 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

His contemporaries thought his time could have been spent on more scholarly publications. His publisher tapped impatient toes for 17 years from request for a Hobbit sequel to publication. The Lord of the Rings didn’t disappoint waiting readers. Hobbit readers had grown up, and they recognized its genius. Yet most people who surrounded Tolkien thought his quirky obsession a huge waste of time. He never even finished what he considered his master work, decades in the making.

Something exploded on my mind in that exhibit, as it had twenty-one years before. Then, it was the beauty of the heroic quest to do the right thing with the time we’re given. Now, it was the recognition of a life profoundly successful, but not because of best seller lists or blockbuster movies.

JRR Tolkien devoted himself to something he loved. He put every piece of his heart into creating a world and creating it well. What others may have called obsessive he called devotion to a call. In fulfilling that call, he crafted a hope that shone through his world, and the world of his readers.

He devoted himself to doing something he loved well, and he offered hope in the doing. 

What else is there? When we look for our life’s promise, what would we want other than Paul’s holy trinity of faith, hope, and love? (For as we know, Tolkien did nothing without faith, too.) Whether we’re mediocre in the end or not, what could we choose but the honest working out of faith, hope, and love? When we look to find the success of our lives, that legacy Hamilton searched for, what more could we ask than that we were found to do what we loved, do it well, and do it in a way that infused it with hope? 

He did it again. Tolkien took something that’s bedeviled me for a while and he laid it out plain in front of me, in those edit-filled cursive loops, scribbled calculations, detailed datelines, and fake-blood stained pages. Waste twelve years writing Lord of the Rings? Hardly. He was building a world and inviting us along into it. Hope and love take time. Faith informs them both. Nothing done in service to the three of them is wasted.

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