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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Success, n.

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.
Transitive verb.
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. 


  1. But surely you noticed that the definition "desired outcome" comes before any reference to fame, prosperity, wealth and favor?

    My desired outcome for this phase of my life is creative fulfillment daily. Every day I succeed, whereas before I failed every single morning. I have tweaked my definition of success according to my terms. Successful people do that.

    When I was coping with post-surgery pain these last two weeks, success was being able to turn over, get out of bed, walk for 40 minutes before exhaustion kicked in. I was a success even then. I was mighty proud, too.

    So the dictionary is not our enemy! And you are not a poor slob! But you are not alone, either. Sometimes I get those pesky thoughts too, about all my contentment and serenity being consolation prizes because my clothing shop hasn't sold but one frock and my blog hasn't landed but one advertiser. But I think about the short-lived euphoria after that one sale, and that one ad, and that's NOT success for me. Keeping on keeping on, is.

  2. Well Scrollwork, the husband pointed out the same thing. All I can say is that I did see "desired outcome" listed first in many places; yet I didn't SEE it.

    This speaks volumes about my blind spot, doesn't it. Speaks to where my bias is, despite all my efforts to free myself from it.

    Yet since you and he pointed it out, I feel better. And the truth is, I am happy as a clam in my recent pursuits, which have nothing to do with wealth--although my financial situation isn't satisfactory to me. I can't help but notice that my priorities are not focused on amassing wealth, much as I bemoan the lack of it. If it really mattered to me, I guess I would do something more definitive about it.

    So I do know what you mean about the simple acts of keeping on bringing that feeling of success.

    And I am glad you're feeling better. I have been there, after abdominal surgery, when it was success to walk around the block.

  3. Seems like you feel like you are waking up from a new-age stupor. I look around and see real problems to be solved. Being happy or balanced or mindful etc seem to be tools for a job, but not the job itself.

    I am in South Africa right now and toured a couple of townships.

    There are real problems to be solved.

  4. Well, Brewster, I wouldn't say I've personally been in a fog, but I have beenreading lots of books on success, and a lot of them have that new age thing going on. i'll admit there's something pleasant about the fantasy of just being able to wish and make things happen, which is the essence of new age, but i don't buy it.

    but i've been reading some more scientific books as well. more to come later.