‘Succeed: that is the advice that falls, drop by drop, from the overhanging fruit of corruption.’
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
success, n./səkˈsɛs/ 1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose. 2. The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.
Oxford English Dictionary
On a first date, in days when I was apparently not a fan of lighthearted introductions, I once asked what success meant to the other person. She struggled to answer me. She was a bit younger than me, and my thought-response was that she needed time to work that out. That was about six years ago and, when she asked me the same question, I gave a definition that involved finding a place that you were comfortable with; realising your true self, and so on. It had certainly always confused me that people said they admired Simon Cowell for his ‘success’, when he seemed to me one of the least admirable kinds of individuals around. By that point in my life, I had carved out my own definition of ‘success’ which was against the grain.
As time has gone by, however, the concept of ‘success’ has seemed to me increasingly elusive. I was going to make this post about writing a definition for success, to clarify my thoughts on the matter. But no matter how many definitions of success I wrote, none of them fit (and I’m pretty good at writing definitions). I have realised that the concept of success as our paradigm for the best way to live or fulfil our purpose on this Earth is inherently flawed. When Victor Hugo says that success is easily confused with merit, he’s right. We need to create a society that helps us to access and activate the essence of our merit, wherever its apex lies at any given moment.
Having ‘success’ as our paradigm implies that (a) our focus should be on the future and (b) we should be constantly striving for something. These are myths whose authority increased exponentially in the social imagination with the first capitalists and innovators who reaped the rewards of the industrial revolution. USA-focused globalisation serves to cement this. Having the concept of ‘success’ as our paradigm does breed innovation and make some of us rich. On the other hand, it’s not a helpful focus overall, as it leaves the majority of us poor and discontented most of the time. Even if, as I did previously, you define the ‘goal’ you are striving for not as money but something like self-realisation or universal compassion, (a) and (b) still stand and these are the fundamental problems with the concept. ‘Success’ is something you want for your business, your half-marathon, or your baking session: it shouldn’t be deified, and it shouldn’t be applied to non-temporal things like how we define ourselves, our approach to relationships, and our way of being in the world.
If success were not deified, our focus would shift away from the future and what we should each individually try to be or prove. The focus would shift to the present moment, to the interconnectedness between all of us, and to what we already are. Would this shift curb innovation or provide less of an incentive to further humanity’s goals? Actually, I believe that less worshiping of ‘success’, and more attention to being present, would benefit all of us, including those with the capacity to innovate. When we live for ‘success’ we feel like we are on an endless treadmill: as soon as we achieve one goal, it’s on to the next. When we live for nothing in particular, and are just present, each moment has the potential to expand into a veritable wonderland of sensation, emotion, and connection. This leads to our feeling validated, satisfied, and buoyed by our connections and self-awareness. These things, I believe, could complement the drive for individual gain, rendering it less ruthless, and enhance our potential to innovate, if we allowed them space in the social imagination.
The functioning of economies and societies are time- and location-dependent, and given the limits of our surroundings and education it’s hard to look up and out of our own epoch and geopolitical worldview. In the West, it’s time for us to normalise a post-Industrial Revolution (including a post-capitalist and post-socialist) understanding of our existence. Focusing only on individual future success not only limits our potential for living our truth and knowing self-realisation in each moment, but it also draws our attention away from our fellow humans and the inequalities that exist throughout the world. The understanding we need to prioritise and return to is one of our interconnectedness, our oneness with the natural world, and full awareness of our immediate environment. It is not unlike the worldview espoused by many primitive societies. As ever, history turns full circle.