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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Success: Some Conclusions

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Okay, so it’s time to check in. What I’ve learned, how I’m feeling about Success. Those self-help how-to be successful books are still in the (reusable) grocery bag. I wanted to wait until I’d examined my own ideas before cracking them – and I still haven’t gotten to them.

So one inspiration for this whole project was Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. Since she’s one of those hard-driving, confident Type-As, her book and her website, because of course she has a website, are full of tasks, steps and mini-projects for her (and her millions of readers) to do to be, um, happier. ‘Course a happily married, materially and professionally successful Ivy-League educated woman seeking additional happiness seems like overkill. She admits it. But even I’ve had a few friends ask me, in re: success, How much is enough?  For me, unlike perhaps for Rubin, my answer is, “Uh, at least some.”

We’re talking about personal measures of subjective states, ultimately, so it’s a little like trying to ride a seal – slippery purchase there.

Anyhoo, since my last two posts have been about my immobility (conflict, tantrums), I thought I ought to show a few of the things I have been actually doing related to feeling more successful.

First, channeling Gretchen Rubin, I bought myself a dedicated notebook to carry around and jot down short or long thoughts on success. With my trusty notebook secreted away, I’ve pigeon-holed any willing friend, relative or acquaintance and asked her or him for thoughts on success and feeling successful. Then, back at home, or huddled in the car, I’ve written down everything I can remember of what they’ve said.

A few conclusions:

  • People have more and different ideas about success than I expected. I expected most people to have what I’ll call the Standard Model.

  • Standard Model people feel successful by comparison to norms. By achieving societally selected markers of achievement, by moving up the ladder, they are able to evaluate their lives and feel successful by looking to their peers who are also climbing rungs. *

            *Ambition drives motivation here, and outward signs of success (material possessions, etc) don’t guarantee feeling successful, as there is the drive to climb, and therefore satisfaction only lasts a short time, until the need to achieve kicks in again.  Catch-22 operates here with the following exception:

  • Self-aware Standard model people, the rarae aves, who know what enough is for them, and can appreciate their achievements. They accept their limitations, etc, or aren’t hung up on proving themselves to others (!!)

  • Classicists take the long view. I’ll call it the Mensch Theory of life. In the Mensch Theory, the question of success is unanswerable until you’re dead, and then you’ll know you were successful if people talk about you at your funeral as a person you could depend on to do the right thing. If you were a mensch, you were successful. The classicists tend to be iconoclasts, or at least unafraid to live individualistically, outside the standard model.

  • Spiritual folk feel successful if they can retain faith in the ultimate worth of the pursuit of the Good while tolerating the problem of the ephemerality of everything in life, even the love of family.*

               *This comes across in some as soldiering on in the face of life’s essential futility (and handing one’s friend who’s obsessed with attaining something in life a copy of the Tao Te Ching.) Kinda the shadow or flip side of spirituality and its implication of belief in something More, but I’m a stubborn gal and I can group them however I like.

  • Creative types, whether in the arts or sciences, seem to need the spur of feeling frustrated with their achievements to generate new ideas and create their next thing. They feel most successful when creating, and perhaps enjoy their creations briefly, before churning up reasons to make more stuff. Ambition obviously comes into play here, too.

Everybody’s definition includes recognition. Oh yes, even the classicists. They’re just willing to be absent when they are recognized as stand-up folk. Modes vary and may include money, approval, thanks, readers, or mourners talking you up, but however you look at it, recognition is one common essential to feeling successful.

Those are my general conclusions. I don’t want to make this too long, so next time I'll get into a few specifics. I will say that I feel more successful--by writing this blog and noting, through comments, or  FB "likes" or compulsive checking of my page view stats, that each time I post, a few more people are reading my writing. That feels GREAT. (Recognition.)


  1. Wow! I'm more different from the rest of the world than I thought. First of all these posts you've written about success have really made me stop and think and realize that success, as commonly defined by most people, means next to nothing to me.

    Recognition, money, possessions are all nice and wonderful, but they don't equate to success in my head. So I had to ask myself what my measure of success is. And I realized it's really, amazingly simple and yet so hard to achieve - happiness.

    If I were happy, I would be successful. When I look at people who are happy - regardless of how much money they have, or how much stuff they have, or how well known they are, those people seem the most successful to me.

    There's this video that was floating around facebook for a while about this guy who has no arms or legs - and yet he goes out there and lives life and does everything he wants to do and he is - or at least appears to be, for the sake of the video - HAPPY! I mean, really happy and fulfilled and filled with joy for the life he has.

    If his happiness and his fulfillment with his life are as real as they seem in the video, he is the most successful person I've ever seen. It means that his happiness lives within him and that no set of circumstances can rob him of it.

    Joy that can't be taken away is the ultimate possession to me - and thus the greatest measure of success.

  2. Julie, Thanks for your thoughts. I hear what you are saying, but I would press you further: if Joy is the measure of success, then how do you define Joy? What are its elements?

    I've been parsing success in so many ways that my head spins sometimes. There's all the surface stuff, the materialism, the career path, the accolades. Then there's the stuff you're talking about, and I agree with to a large degree. At some level, we're all talking about the same thing, just giving it different labels. Success. Happiness. Joy.

    I did see that video about the armless and legless guy and he was incredibly inspirational. But he is also getting a lot of RECOGNITION. Am I right?

    So tell me what it is?

  3. I'm blown away by your analysis, Hope. Almost all the categories I read rang true for me, except the Standard Model.

    So if a person like me can be, either simultaneously or sequentially, self-aware, a mensch, spiritual, and creative, would it follow that we could also be considered successful by each of those ways of defining success?

    What I'm leading up to is this: If we feel unsuccessful by some of the definitions, we still have available to us success on other terms. Only when we become tunnel-visioned (the negative offshoot of being single-minded) about our goal do we succumb to feeling like a "complete failure."

    If the goal is success, defined as recognition, and if we receive recognition for some of our facets, even if not for others—we can still claim to be successful. Small victories are an oxymoron, in my view. It may be because I've failed spectacularly and have developed a deeper appreciation for any size victory. Every victory is a major triumph to me now.

    I really appreciate your thought-provoking posts. This one affirms that for me, fulfillment and contentment have little to do with recognition. I'm still miffed when I don't get the recognition I feel I deserve, but I seem to have grown more sure in my pursuit of fulfillment (internal) rather than recognition (external).

  4. Hey, thanks so much, Scrollwork. I'd have to say that I don't fit into any one of these categories neatly, either.

    And I am struggling with exactly what I think you're getting at here: there are parts of my life that are just as I want them (success), but some parts are not. Does the failure in those parts erase the good stuff? Can there be a balance?