Let’s be honest, I’ve gone over to the namby-pamby side of things, where success is called abundance and is defined in much the same way we talk about happiness or contentment. You know, success is whatever makes you feel good. Wealth is friends, family, feeling a little buzz about your place in the world. It’s been a little New-Age-y around here. A little sticky.
What is it with all this garbage about happiness and contentment? These are consolation prizes, people, for if you happen to notice that while you’re meditating and chanting “ommmm” and smiling at people and giving them candy (did I say that? Is THAT what I want? Candy?) and everything, you haven’t actually gotten rich or famous or become highly prestigious.
These are the kinds of helpful thoughts that buzz around my head when I try to meditate. Or to work.
For some clarity, I headed to the dictionary. Did I mention I used to work in a library? That’s right. Even considered library school, which has become way cooler over the last 20 years than it was when I took one course and decided no, thanks. Still, I’m all about the reference books.
Besides, as any writer knows, when defining terms, you might as well start at the dictionary.
So I started with my actual dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969) that I seem to have lifted from the cooperative house I lived in for five-and-a-half years in my 20s. No, that wasn’t the 1920s, that was MY 20s.
Success, n. 1. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted. 2.a. The gaining of fame or prosperity. b. The extent of such gain. 3. One that is successful. 4. Obsolete. Any result or outcome.
I ended up online, of course, where I looked up "success" in 30 dictionaries. Thirty dictionaries, which all said pretty much the same thing, so I’ll quote you the Mirriam-Webster online definition, since we know and trust the Mirriam-Webster name (although maybe not so much if you’ve taken Reference Librarianship and know things like the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was an extraordinary achievement, whereas the 15th was not.)
Success, n. 1. (obsolete) Outcome, result.
2.a. a degree or measure of succeeding. b. favorable or desired outcome; also the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.
3. One that succeeds.
For thoroughness, I looked up succeed:
Succeed, intransitive verb.
1.a. to come next after another in office or position or in possession of an estate. b. to follow after another in order.
2.a. to turn out well. b. to attain a desired object or end.
1. To follow in sequence and especially immediately.
2. Come after as heir of successor.
Guess what? Not a single mention of abundance. All this talk about “wealth” and “abundance” meaning something other than having money and achieving concrete stuff notwithstanding, the dictionary offers a pretty darn depressing reality check. Success means having money and achieving things that other people have noticed you have achieved. I could have started and ended this post with the Word tools dictionary:
1. Achievement of intention.
2. Attainment of fame, wealth, or power.
3. Something that turns out well.
4. Somebody successful.
Bummer for me.
Can thirty dictionaries be wrong? I mean, is there a way around those key words like fame, wealth, power, achievement?
Well, my tens of readers, of course there is. There has to be. And I think--yes, I think I'm pulling out of my slough of despond--and I can see it.
The dictionary is concerned with the standard definition of success, but most of the successful people I've talked to don't concern themselves with that one. They are, all of them, much more concerned with the day-to-day pursuit of their goals than with the glorious proofs of their attainment. They're more about quality of life, and about purpose than about the fruits of their labors. And if that's how the obviously successful people define success, why should poor slobs like me be any different?
And that brings me back to where I began, really: finding out what makes people feel successful. After all, as my sister the psychoanalyst told me, you can be one of those people who achieves a great deal, but who, because of your psychology, is incapable of feeling good about any of it.
Who wants to live like that?
Phew, that was a close call. I almost had to shut down this whole operation.