Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

The Height of Success

For someone else, I think

Every once in a while, I google myself, in order to prove I still exist. I have come to believe that true success is a long list of google entries—as opposed to my previous standards of success, which revolved about money and, possibly, academic credentials. By this newer standard I am doing much better than all those competitive guys I knew in college who only managed to become professors of surgery at Harvard University or the principal tax partner at a preeminent law firm in New York City. They all became doctors and lawyers, but with a few exceptions never got further up the professional pecking order than I did—or did not bother to try. I don’t count being married to the same woman for a long time as a success, since I think that is a matter of luck; and, besides, those other competitive guys have been married just as long as I have.

Every once in a while, I have thought of writing a blog on what constitutes, or should constitute, success; but my ideas on this subject have changed as I have gotten older—and then old. On one hand, I think that success should mean something more than professional success. It should include doing well in some other aspects of life, such as having friends and a happy family, and being useful to the community in some way. But I am uneasy in assigning credit to anyone about these matters. Like getting married happily, there is plainly a lot of luck in our changing circumstances. I have always said I am willing to forgo any credit someone assigns to me for the good things my children have accomplished as long as I don’t get the blame for whatever else they do.

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But there are still those old-fashioned signs of success: “fame and fortune.” Fortune has always seemed vague to me. When my insurance broker told me as a young man that over my professional lifetime I would make in total over a million dollars, I could not believe him. My father never made more than six thousand dollars a year. Nowadays, young men in investment banking get three or four millions dollars as a bonus every year; and the few I know do not think they are remarkably successful. In fact, having a billion dollars makes someone rich, but not really, really rich, judging from what a few of the billionaires have said in print. It seems there is no amount of money that can guarantee everyone looking up to you as really rich. (Well, maybe that is not true for the top fifty or sixty billionaires.) In any case, who cared? If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would have become a surgeon or a radiologist, but certainly not a psychiatrist. But fame was another story.

I am a writer, and I have been in writers’ groups. These were not people who just aspired to be writers, they made a living by writing. I think every writer, deep down, imagines—hopes—to become famous someday, just like all his or her favorite writers did in the past. (Actually, a number of them did not become famous until after they were dead. And I sometimes comfort myself with the thought that I, too, will become famous posthumously.) I have never met a writer who was satisfied with the level of his or her success. I have read that even those few who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature have accepted the prize with no sense of having made it to the very top. “Well, some good writers have won it, I suppose,” one author said with a sigh, hearing of the award.

But there is one achievement so exalted--so rare-- that no one can sneer at it. It is getting one’s name in a crossword puzzle. It came as an overwhelming surprise, therefore, that one day while I was googling myself (page 6), I came across a book called “Names, Names, Names. A list of Crosswords puzzles’ Who’s Who.” Right after “Fredric March, Actor” (after whom I was named, by coincidence) appeared “Fredric Neuman, Writer.” I laughed. I knew it could not be me. It did not say “Fredric Neuman, Psychiatrist,” or “Fredric Neuman, Psychiatrist- Writer.” Besides, none of the novels or other books on psychiatry that I have written has ever sold much, (although they were all well-reviewed, I tell myself over and over again.) But who was this other Fredric Neuman, Writer, who had become famous? I had never heard of him. Well, it turns out, of course, there are plenty of people with names that look vaguely like mine, but they are not spelled exactly the same way. And spelling something correctly is one thing you can expect from a crosswords puzzle creator. My name can be spelled incorrectly in at least four different places and, therefore, sixteen different ways.

 There is (or was) only one other Fredric Neuman. He was a writer and columnist born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1893, and he wrote a few books, the most well-known being “The Story of Paduca,” which does not sound to me like it was a best seller. He died in 1953. I now have to consider the extremely unlikely possibility that this guy from Paducah became famous vs. the certainty that I am not famous. I have decided to give myself the benefit of the doubt.

  I have a son, Jim, who is the only one of my children who does crossword puzzles. He is hard to impress. (Whenever I tell him anything, he has one of two responses, either: “That’s wrong,” or “I knew that already.”) But getting my name in a puzzle--that’s a whole other story. When I told him about my entry in the “Crosswords, Who’s Who,” his eyes glazed over, and he contrived a sickly smile. Then he changed the subject.  (c) Fredric Neuman. Author of "Detroit Tom and His Gang." Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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