Are You Successful? How the American Gangster Film Shaped my View of Life

“Your success took a shot at you
What are you gonna to do now?
How are you gonna kill it?
You’re gonna become unsuccessful?
Frank, you can be successful and have enemies, uh
Be unsuccessful too, and you can have friends.”

American Gangster is one of my favorite movies. In it, Denzel Washington portrays the infamous drug kingpin, Frank Lucas. The quote above is from Frank’s conversation with mob boss Dominic Cattano after Frank’s enemies stage an attack against him. The film poetically captures Frank’s violent rise to power in Harlem, NY throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Just like every crime boss, he is eventually taken down by law enforcement and forced to serve time for his criminal acts. Despite the film’s gritty context, it perfectly captures a man’s struggle with how he defines success versus the way it is defined by the people close to him.

Based on your definition of the word, are you successful yet? Is your view of success influenced by your family or social circle in any way? As a child, my family defined success as finishing college and starting a career in a respectable field with a high income. During my teenage years, I defined success in terms of financial gain. When I started my engineering career my definition of success shifted to job titles and positions. By the time I left engineering for academia, my view of success shifted to a measure of my impact. Based on that definition alone, I am successful.

For the past year, I’ve been working to redefine what success looks like for me. I’ve realized that success is in the eye of the beholder. The way we define success should be based on the things we value. What I’ve determined as success measures for me are a few things:

  1. How my child turns out as a young adult,
  2. My adherence to the core faith principles,
  3. My ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle,
  4. My investment in and commitment to my family, and
  5. My ability to build a legacy of wealth for future generations.

At this point in my life, success is no longer monolithic. Essentially, as I’ve gotten older, my definition of success has become more nuanced. Success for me is more about things that bring me intrinsic value, and less about what others can visibly see. As a result of this, I’m fighting every day to achieve success based on my new way of defining it. In the past, I viewed success as a destination. Now I realize that it is a journey, and I’m focused on enjoying the ride.

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