Success is a funny idea. It’s a tricky concept, because nobody can tell you, with any precision, what it is. Nobody knows what success means as a global concept. Most people, if pressed, can tell you about their own success goals, as if the word “success” was a catch-all for any mad scheme that you can dream up and want to achieve, but they can’t tell you what success means to humanity as a whole. At best, success refers to a satisfied state of mind, but that depends entirely on how you look at things and what frame of reference you put them in. One person’s self-satisfaction is another person’s reprehensibility.
When the word is so loosely and diversely defined, being as personal as it is to each of us, how then can it have any validity as a comparative term? How can we refer to other people as being more or less successful than we are? What kind of standard of measure is it, if it allows you compare yourself against others, but we can’t even agree on the scale or length, or whether we’re trying to compare weight against speed? We’re certainly trying to compare apples and oranges, aren’t we?
Some assert that success means winning at all costs; however you define “winning” and “cost”. I think that’s a dangerous definition, because of its inexactitude. It invites an “anything goes” mentality, which potentially does immeasurable harm to others. It isn’t success, if it beggars your neighbours and makes everything worse for everybody else, I submit. The mind set of “I’ve got mine and screw the rest of you” is an infantile way of looking at success. Not only is it the most insignificant type of success, because it’s only about you, but it actually disguises monumental failure. Astonishingly, this very idea of pulling up the lifeboats once you’re safe and to hell with everybody else, is at the heart of political thinking in the West and has been for decades. We run all of our lives this way.
Strangely, everybody wants to be a successful business person, or artist, or sportsman, or father, or mother, or what have you. We aspire to success, without having a clue about recognising a success. Are you a successful painter because you make a painting a day, or because you only allow one a year to reach the exacting standards of your atelier and be released for sale? Are you a successful musician because a hundred million screaming teenagers have hormonally driven fantasies about being married to you, or because only five people and a dog appreciate the sacred, inner, hidden message of your esoteric, underground, independent music? Are you a monster hit because you kicked thousands of people out of their homes, due to their failure to play a game of your making involving promissory notes, or because you gave away empty homes to the homeless?
The dictionary definition isn’t much help either. Success is variously defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. They say it’s about achieving something desired, planned or attempted. Well, what are those aims or purposes, exactly? Anything? Nothing? Everything? Which desires, plans and attempts? Which ones are worth achieving? Can it be that any aim or purpose will do?
Here are some of the newer definitions of success that are beginning to gain currency, as a counterbalance to the ideas of wealth accumulation, consumption and acquisition of possessions that previously were thought of as the gold standard: Staying positive, helping others, expressing gratitude, evolving the global consciousness by showing others how to see differently, making your art and ensuring that you finish it, failing and learning from the failure, surviving, being an authentic artist, etc. The list is endless and yet, it’s little more than a fashion show.
In an earlier age, the success metrics might have been things like ensuring your child was disciplined harshly enough to harden them up, preventing new ideas from taking root, dying pointlessly for nationalistic reasons, owning a bigger car than your neighbour, the unquestioning execution of orders delivered from the authorities, earning a lot more money than your father ever did and so on. We’re prone to believe that success is whatever the media and its funding advertisers want us to believe is success, usually for their own nefarious reasons. You see, it’s still considered a success if you can perpetrate a wheeze and a lie on the general public and get away with it, enriched in the process.
One of the more commonly held measures of success is being successful in your career. What if your career is producing weapons of mass destruction? Are you still successful? We talk about being successful in love. Is that something that we achieve, as a directed goal, or something fortunate that happens to some of us? Who can tell? If it just falls into our lap, is that a success too?
There are programmers in the world that make software that we get to use for free. I’m sure they regard themselves as successful programmers. Yet, Google Desktop will eat half your CPU and stall every other application for several days continuously, while it indexes your files, so that you can find them instantly. What’s the point of instant access, if you can’t use your computer effectively for days on end, while it prepares for that search moment?
Apple’s iTunes will ensure that audio never drops out, if your computer is busy, by the simple expedient of repeating, in a loop, what it had already played from its buffer. However, it will allow other programmes to hog the CPU (Google Desktop, for example) so that your music plays back with alternating 4 and 5 beat bars. What’s the point of continuing to play music that no longer respects the rhythm or time signature?
Google Chrome was designed to let you browse rapidly, yet opening a new tab stops iTunes dead. Silence. No music at all, until Google Chrome has done its thing. Counter-intuitively, these programmers all thought their solution was a success. Not a single one went to the root causes or the point and real purpose of what they were attempting to do, to guarantee their code would do it successfully. I wonder how many of us believe we’re successful, when we’ve failed to address the obvious or the deeper need?
There are people that are displayed on the covers of magazines as being successful, yet we know their success consists of little more than playing their designated role. Is it really a success to be more conformant and mediocre than everybody else? Do you get to be a winner for conspiring in the conduct of a worldwide crime that imperils all life on earth, with complicity and enthusiasm, fully compliantly? The magazine covers tell us “yes”. We are also expected to acquiesce, in order to be successful, too. Personally, I cannot see the success in damaging people and the environment in a quest to collect more paper promissory trading tokens, issued by private interests, than anybody else. It ranks with being good at Scrabble, on the scale of human achievement, in my view.
Success is too ephemeral and absurd, to be used as a universal measure or basis for comparison. It barely warrants use as an internal measure of how you’re doing, given the random nature of what you set out to succeed in. There’s no point at all in getting hung up on it. What one person perceives as success is different to what another does, so why try to meet everybody else’s standards? You can’t anyway, because many of the standards of success that different people hold up for you to meet are directly contradictory. Chasing success seems to me to be a way to guarantee unhappiness and disappointment. It’s an unreachable goal, because it can be redefined at any time.
Success has no objective meaning and yet, success must be anchored within some ethical and moral framework, or it becomes a monstrosity. Any success metric that threatens life with extinction, or diminishes the quality of life, for example, isn’t worth pursuing or entertaining. Amazingly, we do, though.
Although we can easily show that most, if not all, success metrics lack any legitimacy, due to their wholly arbitrary nature, we routinely allow these metrics to cause damage and harm; real damage and harm, to real people, animals and environments. Isn’t that a very strange thing to do?
Next time you find yourself feeling like you wished you were a more successful artist, or more successful anything, think on what kind of process you are setting in motion. It could be pure folly or worse. Far better to strive to do what you can, the best you can, with what you’ve got and relax about how that compares to others. Because, in reality, it doesn’t and never will.