Wednesday, January 17, 2020

Thoughts About Success (Part 2)

Is True Success Non-Material?

Another way to ask this question is to consider whether “doing well” in life is the same as “living well.” In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed various definitions of material success—prosperity, recognition, status, and independence—and considered whether they offered a clear path to follow on a quest for a good life. It seemed that the answer had to be “no,” mostly because no definition of material success seems to offer a sound recipe for living well. It also became clear that deciding how to achieve a good life via any definition of material success was equally open to dispute.
Many people dismiss the whole notion of finding a path to a good life through purely material success as a sideshow. They argue that what produces a life well-lived, together with feelings of satisfaction and personal value, has little to do with conventional measures of prosperity. Success in life and work, they argue, is not material. Prosperity and advancement are pleasant—even desirable—but should not be seen as sufficient life goals. True success has to do with matters such as finding meaning, value, happiness, and personal satisfaction.

One way of coming to grips with this viewpoint is to recognize it’s underlying premise: that success is not an end in itself, but a means to arrive there. Non-material definitions of success see the true goal of life as existing apart from all aspects of visible achievement. Indeed, they may see conventional indicators of success as blockages on the path to life’s real goals.

Does Success Guarantee a Meaningful Life?

Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining living well, but it does not really offer a clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.
Large numbers of people share the belief that personal prosperity is not a reliable source of meaning or value. They cannot feel satisfied with life unless it gives them some assurance that what they do has value over and beyond any rewards that they may gain. In certain circumstances, gaining this sense of achieving something meaningful may actually conflict with what it will take to be successful in a material sense. That is why such people may well forgo wealth, fame, even comfort, in pursuit of what they believe to be a more important set of goals. Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining living well, but it does not really offer a clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.

The difficulty with all such value-based definitions of success in life (and the actions and choices that leads to it) is plain: each definition is individual and depends on the fundamental values behind it. Unless you accept those values, the subsequent choices rarely make much sense. For example, those who value ecological responsibility might judge success in terms of minimizing any negative impact on the planet. To anyone who does not share those values, that definition of success would be, at best, meaningless—even incomprehensible.

Enthusiasts for any cause often to want to impose their values on others, by persuasion or force. The results are nearly always unfortunate, since values are highly personal and the majority of people resist anyone else interfering with them. Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining success, but it does not offer any clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.

Will material success guarantee a life that includes a sense of meaning? No, it won’t. If living what you judge to be a meaningful life is important to you, you must subordinate prosperity to your primary goal of finding meaning—however much other people see your choice as eccentric or idealistic.

Is Success About How You Feel?

From this viewpoint, success is purely instrumental. What each of us is really seeking is this set of feelings; happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, contentment, excitement, or whatever else we desire.
Perhaps material success is a proxy. If so, any objective definition of success is doomed to fail because success itself is merely acting as a means for gaining something else—something entirely subjective and emotional. Whatever feelings achievement is expected to produce are the true goal. Maybe feelings of pride, or recognition, or power, or importance in the world.

From this viewpoint, success is purely instrumental. What each of us is really seeking in our lives is this set of feelings; happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, contentment, excitement, or whatever else we desire. Successful actions would thus be defined purely as those most likely to produce such feelings in a suitably reliable way. If praise brings you feelings of intense pleasure, any action that produces praise is a successful one. In such subjective territory, one person’s source of positive emotions may differ profoundly from another’s. Besides, such an instrumental view would allow any action to be judged successful that produced the desired feeling. If a criminal derived pleasure from killing people, murder would be accepted as successful for that person.

This is obvious nonsense. To be acceptable to society as a whole, actions that people use to produce a life based on achieving positive feelings must also be socially acceptable (or, at least, tolerable) ones — which takes us straight back to conventional definitions of success: the ones that that are built around society’s current norms.

There is also another problem with an instrumental view of success. While we want to experience positive feelings, we usually want to avoid negative ones even more. Absence of pain may be as important as pleasure; success and prosperity may be sought, not so much for itself, but to escape from poverty and want. There is a good deal of evidence that people are more likely to choose actions that promise to help them avoid negatives that they are to select those that offer positive outcomes. We’ve already seen that a meaningful life may be neither easy nor happy. Now it seems that seeking a good life that is based on achieving positive feelings might have as much, or more, to do with escaping from negative ones. In either case, such feelings are entirely personal , so it’s hard to use what works to produce them as the basis for a wider definition of success.

Besides, success usually requires others’ approval or co-operation. Pursuing an individual feeling of happiness in defiance of what others see as acceptable behavior quickly lands you in trouble. You may want the constituents of material success because they lead to emotions that you desire; but unless those success patterns are also generally approved they are unlikely to allow you to avoid pain or other negative results at the same time.

Does “Doing Well” Really Mean “Doing Better Than the Next Guy?”

Does “doing well” actually mean being more successful that those we see as our peers, even if we try to keep this element in the mix hidden?
We live in a highly competitive society, where almost all success—at least in conventional terms—includes some element of winning out over others. Is it really the case that we cannot feel successful unless we are somehow clearly beating our “competition?” Does “doing well” actually mean being more successful that those we see as our peers, even if we try to keep this element in the mix hidden?

“Doing Well” almost always carries some connotations of being more successful than others. Indeed, where success is open to all, with neither competition nor significant obstacles, it is often dismissed as insignificant and “too easy” to be worth pursuing. To succeed is almost always equated with being a winner; and winning is all about causing others to be seen to lose. The adulation accorded to sports stars, those who win TV talent shows, and film starts or singers who win Grammys, Emmys, or Oscars makes it obvious that most conventional ideas of success—material or non-material—include coming in first in a tough race.

Of course, many people are uneasy with such definitions of success precisely because they must always produce more losers than winners. In a large field, like a whole organization, very few can win the greatest indicators of success, but huge numbers can—and must—lose to allow it to happen. Are all these losers by definition also unsuccessful in living good lives? Can you establish relative measures of success that allow for ability and effort, even if the final goal was not achieved? Won’t all such measures be seen for what they are: merely consolation prizes?

Defining success as winning satisfies a few and leaves everyone else out in the cold. On a large scale, it produces an under-class of those who have given up hope and are therefore prey to feelings of revenge towards the winners. In an organization, it leads to a favored elite trying to keep a mass of more-or-less alienated employees in their place. While competition may be an acceptable enough basis for defining success in sport, it’s drawbacks in the workplace seem to outweigh any benefits. Of course, it is still widely used, which perhaps accounts for persistent problems of morale and turnover in the most competitive businesses.

Using competition as a basis for defining success also causes people to focus on simple, tangible, and easily measurable indicators of winning or losing: like money, percentage changes in output, or comparisons with industry norms. It has become obvious that some of the outrageous payments given to top executives are driven less by greed than a wish to keep score and indicate your placing amongst your peers. Similar reasons lie behind the urge to seek promotion—even if you suspect the higher-level job will bring only greater stress and a higher chance of failure.

Maybe Success Cannot be Defined in a Single Way?

All the definitions of success that we have examined have failed in one way or another to form a sound basis for living a good life. Perhaps there is no clear definition that can be agreed upon that can serve in this way. Maybe, like obscenity, a good life is something we cannot really define—yet everyone recognizes when they see it.

In the end, we must each make our own decision about what constitutes success in living a good life. It may be conventional, like winning or making lots of money. It may include a commitment to seeking some higher meaning or acting in the service of others. It may include following a dream, or chasing a vision of life based on purely subjective desires. Whatever it is, it is the only kind of life success that will be truly satisfying. Success is what we say it is, whether others agree or not. Following external definitions of success may bring wealth, power, or prestige, but it will never bring happiness if it runs counter to our own, internal values.

These values, and they impact they have on achieving any kind of life success that will bring satisfaction, are the subject of Part 3 of this series.

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Shawn L said...

Very thoughtful writing Carmine. Success is such a subjective ideal and you are exactly right with the hyper-inflated status symbols of advertising, Hollywood & wealth. It is nearly impossible not to get wrapped around some of these influences and maybe be so transparent to coming generations as cultures get more and more media saturated.

I always enjoyed this poem in regards to one's intrinsic success.

1:10 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Great comment and poem, Shawn.


Keep reading, my friend.

8:26 AM  
peter vajda said...

Hi Carmine,

In addition to your "doing well" vs. "living well", my overriding rubric would be "be-ing" well.

I like the way you frame true and real success as above and beyond aspects of visible (material?) achievement. This is why I equate success more with "be-ing" and self-actualization than an accumulation of "stuff" (however defined and rationalized as "success").

One of my definitions of succes is that I am OK with whatever arises in the moment, good, bad or indifferent...that I can move through it, not around it, with a sense of OK-ness...that opportunities are happening FOR me not TO me...that I'm not caught up in the past or future,or in an ego-competitive stand with others. In this place, I am successful.

I think of someone reminding me that a diamond in and of itself is just a mineral, a stone that inherently has to value or worth...that humans decided it had value or worth...and so I am conscious of my values and always curious if my values are supporting me or limiting some way causing me pain--empotional, physical, financial, psychological, social, etc.

I think, in many ways, the striving for success or, really, striving for the appearance of success, for many, causes more pain and suffering that it does joy and happiness.

Be-ing is a state of success that is characterized by a quiet mind, a peaceful heart, a relaxed body and present moment awareness. Being "successful" and not experiencing these states of well-be-ing seems, to me at least, to be someting other than success...not unlke being "rich" but not "wealthy

11:20 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Peter.

What you say is very thought-provoking and I am sure many people will find it helpful in convincing them that purely material success can be as likely to diasappoint and hurt as provide happiness.

Keep reading, my friend.

11:25 AM  

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