The definition of success is one that is relatively simple and straightforward. According to the dictionary, success is:
- the favorable outcome of something attempted
- the attainment of wealth, fame, etc
- an action, performance, etc, that is characterized by success
- a person or thing that is successful
In other words, success is merely a result. A book launch can be a success, a clean & jerk can be a success, a party can be a success. A success is, as number one states, “the favorable outcome of something attempted.” Unfortunately, this word has been perverted in recent times into a phrase, to be successful, and we can see this in both definition two and four. This means that success is no longer describing a result, but a state of being, which raises all kinds of questions:
If a business is successful for a decade and has a couple of years with shrinking profit, is it all of a sudden not successful?
Does one have to continue to achieve things constantly to be considered successful?
At what point could someone be considered a successful musician? Do they have to play regular gigs for decent cash at bars, do they have to have a recording contract, do they have to win an award?
If I have a one hit wonder, does that make me a successful artist, or is it just a fluke?
You can see the problems that arise when you take success from a result to a state of being. Now it is all in the eye of the beholder, or the media, or society, or anyone who wants to weigh in. Let’s face it: For the vast majority of the population, success comes down to how much money one makes in their job and/or how much power they wield. No one is going to look at the most loved and respected nurse and say that they are more successful than Donald Trump, no matter how poorly he acts or how racist he gets.
Regardless of what the definition of being ‘successful’ may be, it is almost always measured in comparison to other people. It is never absolute.
If we look back even just a century, however, we see that the concept of being successful is a rather odd idea. The people at the top of society, known as “old money” were seen as the most prestigious and therefore “best” people. It did not matter that their wealth was inherited, it was the fact that they had been brought up around wealth and thus knew how to act and comport themselves in a manner befitting of such a social strata. They were never considered successful, though — such a concept did not exist at the time. They were just seen as the old aristocracy in Europe was: better than everyone else.
On the other hand, the “new money”—the people who had actually earned their way to the top—were looked down upon by the old money and seen as less than them. Right now they are essentially our gods in the 21st century of capitalism; those self made men who managed to become wealthy through their business acumen and hard work. At the time though, they wouldn’t have been considered successful (again, it wasn’t really a concept back then). They were looked down upon because they had to earn their own money.
It’s interesting to note that regardless of what the definition of being successful may be, it is almost always measured in comparison to other people. It is never absolute. It matters little that a man may have complete financial independence with $60k of income per year, have close, fulfilling relationships and be extraordinarily happy. That would almost never be considered successful. This is because he is compared to workaholic billionaires who never see their families and have few meaningful relationships. We measure success by tangibles such as money, without considering an individual’s perspective on life.
Having money, status or both in modern times causes one to be seen as “better” than everyone else. It matters little how this wealth or status is attained (think Kim Kardashian)—just that it is. Once someone becomes a part of this club they are revered by the middle class and looked up to as gods who are somehow special for what they have attained. They are held up as the definition of success, because in a culture obsessed with consumerism they are the people who are able to consume the most. As such, their voices become the most important and listened to, because we equate wealth with worth.
Before the industrial age, one’s station in life was considered to be the result of the divine. Religion decreed that if your father was a baker then that was God’s plan for you as well. The ruling class were bowed and scraped for, looked up to as “better” because they had been born into their position, meaning they ruled by divine right which was further entrenched by the clergy. They were your betters and you accepted this fact. You didn’t aspire to be like them or lust after what they had, because such notions at that time were absurd. If God wanted you to have that, he would have made you a prince rather than the son of a baker.
The idea that career success comes down to laziness or hard work is extremely damaging to anyone who isn’t sitting at the top.
It would make sense then that in the modern world, where such religious ideas are thought of even by their adherents as ridiculous, that we would have a different perspective. We should be able to look objectively at all the reasons someone has reached a certain level on the career ladder; what advantages helped them progress faster or what disadvantages held them back. It would be reasonable to assume that someone from a minority group who has grown up with a single parent on welfare has a number of disadvantages when it comes to where they will end up in their career. Their level of success and satisfaction will likely be very different from a person in the ethnic majority with parents who put significant time and money into their education and transition into work.
Unfortunately, a large amount of the population—rather than recognizing that someone from a minority group may need assistance just to have the right psychology for a successful career—will instead chalk their situation up to something else: laziness.
While it’s easy to recognize that the concept of divine intention in our station of life is ridiculous, the idea that career success comes down to individual laziness or hard work is much more insidious and extremely damaging to anyone who isn’t sitting at the top. Now it isn’t just that you’re unlucky or unfavored by God—it’s your fault. Business leaders and entrepreneurs frequently espouse that the most important ingredient in their rise was the fact that they worked hard. This is in no doubt — one does not build a business or make it to the position of CEO without putting in a gargantuan amount of effort.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the working population, this implies that they aren’t on top simply because they haven’t worked hard enough. Rarely mentioned are the other ingredients that make up such a level of success. Surely if hard work is the equivalent of flour in baking a cake, we also have the equivalents of sugar, eggs and water in the form of luck, connections, timing and good advice or mentoring. These things are not mere trivialities that hard work can overcome, they are vital. Going to the right schools, having the right parents, even just being in the right place at the right time (like Silicon Valley during the tech boom) have an enormous impact on the level of career success one can expect.
We should also look at this from another perspective: imagine telling a stressed out office worker who puts in 10 to 12 hour days for $50k a year that she just isn’t working hard enough, that she is on a low salary because she doesn’t work as hard as those above her. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that this is utter nonsense, but it’s become the capitalist narrative. Everyone’s current position in life is apparently based solely on how hard that person has worked and they deserve to be where they are. If you’re not rich or powerful, you aren’t successful. And if you aren’t successful, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t innovative enough, you haven’t done enough.
You aren’t enough.
One percenters like Sam Zell have even said recently that they shouldn’t be persecuted because they just “work harder than everyone else.” Unfortunately, many at the top develop a narrative in their heads that their level of success is all down to their own hard work, that they are special in some way and everyone else is lazy. It is rare to hear a millionaire or billionaire recognize the advantages they might have had growing up, the things that went their way at the right time or what they were able to leverage once they gained a little power which accelerated their rise.
It’s all enough to depress even the most level headed person.
We have been conditioned with destination syndrome, whereby we are always expecting to be happy and satisfied when we meet the next milestone.
What if we began to look at career success through the lens of happiness, job satisfaction and even contribution to humanity and society? Many of the people we now look up to as successful would all of a sudden be thought of as much more normal and provoke much less envy. Society never considers nurses (for example) to be successful, but the quality of their work and the care they provide is a vital service to anyone who is in hospital. No one ever asks career or life advice from the person working an average paying job, despite the fact they may display an ordinary genius in living a simple, peaceful and fulfilling life.
No, we look to the rich—to the people who have made it to the top of the pile—to tell us how to be like them because we assume they are better than we are and are happier than we are.
How often have you had an existential crisis on a Sunday evening? We’ve all had one at some point or another; for some they are few and far between, for many they are all too regular. Work is a large and important part of our lives, this is in no doubt whatsoever. When we are spending 8+ hours a day in addition to commuting five out of seven days a week, that is a large chunk of our time—so when we are in a terrible job it is of course vital that we get out of it as soon as we possibly can.
That said, the general population looks at work the wrong way the majority of the time. We say we aren’t advancing fast enough, we aren’t paid enough, we don’t like our boss, our commute is too long. When we aren’t happy we look at all the negatives of our job and career, reinforcing our unhappiness and perpetuating the cycle. We in the West have been conditioned with destination syndrome, whereby we are always expecting to be happy and satisfied when we meet the next milestone. Of course if we have such a worldview, we are going to become breathless with anxiety at the thought that the next milestone might be a long way away, therefore we cannot be happy in the meantime.
You yourself probably don’t even know why, but you’ve read enough listicles on how to be successful to believe that’s what you want.
We aren’t taught by anyone in our lives—be it our teachers, parents or other authority figures—to look for the positives in our job and our life. The solution given to us is always simple: if you don’t like your job, quit.
This is pointless advice, because it ignores the very psychology is programmed into us about work and life in the first place.
Very often it isn’t our job that we hate—it’s our lack of advancement and our level of status. This is because, in addition to destination syndrome, we are conditioned to always compare ourselves to everyone else, which means we only ever see the things we don’t have and assume the other person, by virtue of having things that we don’t, is happier than us. We aren’t ever taught that we need to go searching for the positives in our jobs, our careers and our lives.
No. It is the way of the West to look at all the things we don’t have, so it is little wonder that we feel eternally poor and miserable.
From a very young age, we learn not to address the elephant in the room: that we will all die one day. Even if we conquer the world we cannot take it with us, and when we realize this truth, thoughts of power, riches and advancing up the corporate ladder more quickly begin to pale in comparison to the desire to be happy and at peace. We often see that perspective (happiness and peace) as somewhat quaint, being the domain of the cheerful peasant who doesn’t know any better. We are of course more intelligent, live in a more complicated world and have bigger things to think about. When we have such delusions of grandeur and pretense that we are something more than people who have less than us, it’s important to go back and consider those articles we see pop up from time to time on the regrets of the dying. The common theme is that they spent too much time working, too much time worrying about career advancement and things that weren’t important in the grand scheme of things. For most, it isn’t until the onset of mortality that they realize their anxiety over career and status was a waste of their time, which is a tragedy.
This serves as a stark reminder that what we value isn’t necessarily what we should value. When we have only one life—with a short span of 80 years, if we’re lucky—happiness all of a sudden becomes hugely important. The problem is that we are taught and conditioned to believe we have to impress other people with our status, and this will make us feel happy in addition to all the things we can buy. We need to earn lots of money and have lots of power so we’ll be respected and thought highly of by people.
The question is, which people?
Our friends rarely care about such things, because usually our deepest friendships have nothing to do with our work. Our families usually (and should always) love us for who we are, not what we do. Unfortunately many parents fall into the trap of wanting their children to be successful to boost their own status. I’ve heard them before—almost breathless with anxiety at the fact that little Johnny has turned 18 and he still doesn’t know what to do with his life. It’s a shame that the casual eavesdropper can see how ridiculous the mother is being but she cannot.
If you’re obsessed with “becoming successful,” I’m curious to know why. Is it because you want to be respected? Is it because you want status? Wealth? The glory of being at the top? Power? I’ll wager that you yourself probably don’t even know why, but you’ve read enough magazines, listicles on how to be successful and been sufficiently programmed by the media to believe that’s what you want. For many people, it takes an entire lifetime to realize that they wasted their time chasing after what was sold or programmed into them.
What’s it going to be for you?
Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and every day life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.