Monday, January 15, 2020

Thoughts About Success (Part 1)

What is Success?

This blog, like many, many others, is fundamentally about success: success in combining the needs and demands of the workplace, the profession of leadership, and all the other opportunities of life into some satisfying package. But do we even know what success is, let alone what it may take to achieve it? Today begins a four-part series exploring the topic of success and how it may be achieved.
Success is a constant topic of conversation. Proud parents tell their friends how well their children are doing at school or in their careers. Vehicles display bumper stickers proclaiming that a child is on the Honor Roll, attends a particular university, is a member of the military, or follows a particular profession. When you meet a friend whom you haven’t seen in a while you ask: “How’s it going?” “I’m doing pretty well,” the friend replies, and you nod and smile.

Worse still for any generally agreed measure of success, can we even reach a shared position on what aspects of life we are seeking to make successful?
But are we all talking about the same thing? Is there any definition of success—even so-called worldly success—that we can all agree upon? And if there is not, what are so may people pursuing in their lives? If success can be defined in many ways, some of them conflicting, is it worth chasing after at all? We know that getting what we think we want often leads to disappointment. Is that because the way we defined success was wrong? Or were we merely seeking success as a way of producing something else—and it’s that process which has failed? Worse still for any generally agreed measure of success, can we even reach a shared position on what aspects of life we are seeking to make successful?

Success at work is perhaps easiest to define, at least in conventional terms. It appears to have three distinct aspects:
  • Attaining prosperity and advancement.

  • Winning respect, recognition, power and status.

  • Increasing independence and choice.
As we’ll see in a later posting in this series, even these three aspects of purely working success are not totally compatible and require constant trade-offs in order to operate together.

If you turn to life as a whole, the definition of success becomes far wider and much more diffuse. I don’t believe this is a compete list, in any terms, but it may do to make my point:
  • Getting what you want.

  • Being happy.

  • Being liked or loved.

  • Having successful relationships (and how do you define “successful” there?).

  • Doing something meaningful and of value (to whom?).

  • Serving others.

  • Being a good member of your community.

  • Following a specific creed, set of beliefs, or worthy aspirations (who says they are worthy?).
The clashes multiply as soon as you try to combine life and work success. Many clergy, philosophers, and teachers of all creeds despise worldly success and see it as fundamentally incompatible with “real” success in living. Are they correct to do so? Or are those right who see prosperity and a secure place in the community as a mark of divine favor or an indicator of a life well lived?

Should you get what you want (which others may disapprove of or which may be harmful to you in the long-term)? Should you focus instead on what you ought
to want? But that at once raises the question of whose authority supplies the “ought” and whether they are to be trusted.

Things don’t get much better if we drop the speculation and turn instead to practical definitions of success, based on what we can see that people do that leads to them being described as successful. There are at least three sources of definitions even here:
  1. What produces success in material terms.

  2. What leads to someone being admired or held up as a role model.

  3. What are conventionally held to be marks of success.
It’s probably fair to say that success in material terms is widely agreed to be a mark of “success” in life. However, how you achieve material success is also a component. Unrestrained self-interest, acquisitiveness and a ruthless disposition are almost certainly major components of achieving material success as swiftly and reliably as possible. We all know that, but seem to close our eyes to it when praising those who amass fortunes and fame. Such unpleasant means do not fit well with respect for what has been attained. We solve the dilemma not by decrying the success but glossing over how the person reached it. The drug-taking and sexual practices of media and sports stars; the corruption of politicians; the greed and callousness of business tycoons; all are somehow set aside in the adulation their success can bring.

If success was defined by what these role models did, very few people today are even trying to be successful.
Those who are held up as role models—people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr, or Nelson Mandela—are admired far more than their actions are emulated. That’s probably because most of them suffered to achieve their goals, and very few had any significant material success in life. People may point to Gandhi as an example of greatness, but very few choose to live as simple and ascetic a life. If success was defined by what these role models did, very few people today are even trying to be successful.

Conventional descriptions of successful behavior also tend to rely heavily on pointing to “great men” of the past (They are nearly always men, by the way. Successful women are routinely ignored as role models.). There has been a rash of books supposedly sharing secrets of greatness derived from the lives of almost every hero you care to name. The authors rarely seem to care that these people lived in a different age, dealt with very different contexts, and were usually engaged in totally different activities (like fighting medieval warfare or being an absolute monarch) from their modern readers. The hunt is on for “transferable skills” of greatness and success—preferably ones that can be packaged into a saleable format. In time, just about every human attribute has been pressed into service to account for success. As a result, conventional definitions have become vague and all-encompassing to the point of being virtually meaningless.

In the end, most definitions of success are circular: they define success as what successful people do to become successful. Because of that, it’s difficult to pursue even material success without the constant concern that what you are chasing may not be precisely what you think it is.

Perhaps focusing on material success is the problem. Maybe true success—the actions that lead to personal satisfaction as well as (or in place of ) material prosperity—is non-material: a matter of feelings, values, and subjective perceptions. That will be the topic of Part 2 in this short series.

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Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

Well in Maslow's hierarchy of needs he has at the apex self-actualization.. perhaps that is what success is.. the knowledge of who you are, your place in the world and your satisfaction with it.

2:06 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael.

You may be right — and I prefer your interpretation of the word "self-actualization" to many that I have heard.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:44 PM  
Kathleen DeFilippo said...

I find that my definition of success has been somewhat fluid over the years: in my twenties, success meant a certain level of financial status; in my thirties, it was about being a good mom and later about career growth.

Now that I'm in my early forties, my idea of success involves neither more money nor a corner office. At this time in my life, success looks like a small jewelbox of a house on a wooded lot in the country, with a garden I have time to tend, a library of books I have time enough to read (at last!), and work that challenges me without threatening to take over my soul. :-)

9:19 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I am right there with you, Kathleen.

I did the ambition thing, made something of a success and then found I was leaving it behind. It worried me for a long time, until I realized that I was indeed leaving it — not it leaving me.

Now I am 60 and retired. Just recently I was asked to take on yet another leadership role. At first I thought "yes, I can do that." Then I realized that was a purely automatic response. I could indeed do it, but I no longer had the slightest interest in going back down that track again. So I turned it down and felt good about doing so.

How I wish everyone could reach the stage of living their own lives earlier. It took me all of my working life to get there, which is way too long.

That's why I am trying to show others that it's not worth having all that you can get, if the cost is giving up most of what you truly are.

9:40 PM  
Doug said...

This all seems a little complicated. To me, success can be defined in 3 words: Achieving your goals.

8:15 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Well, maybe, Doug.

But surely how you achieve them has a major impact on any definition of success too? If not, gaining whatever you want to gain by lying, cheating, violence, or murder would be just as good as getting there by fair and legal means.

It's not only what you want that counts, it's how you choose to go about getting it.

9:32 AM  

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