The definition of success

Let me begin by stating that there are many arguments against what I am about to say. That is a weird introduction huh? It’s like saying “I’m not racist…but…” and then following that up with a racist comment. Anyway, I’m doing it. Deal with it. What I’m about to write about is my belief of society’s definition of success after I had graduated University. After stating my belief, I will work backwards to explain why I held this belief at this time. Here it is:

Society’s definition of success: Rich.

Wow, that was a pretty simple definition huh? That ends this blog post.

Just kidding… Let’s look into this a little deeper. The dictionary definition of success is ‘the accomplishment of an aim or purpose’. Based on my understanding of society’s definition of success, the aim or purpose which one must accomplish to be considered successful is to become rich. Or in other words, in order to achieve success, as 50 Cent would say, get rich or die trying! This made sense to me. New Zealand is a capitalist country, albeit more lefty than a lot of other countries. Capitalism’s broad purpose is to allow individuals to control capital, and in the process, build wealth. It follows that the most successful people in a capitalist society must be those that build the most wealth. Right?

Before going any further I want you to do something for me. I want you to try to recall a time where a friend, colleague, or stranger has been talking to you about another person and they tell you, when describing the other person, that “he / she is very successful”. This is a very common phrase, so I would expect you should be able to recall at least one example conversation. Okay, have you got an example in your head? Good. Now I want you to think about what your friend, colleague, or stranger was trying to tell you about this person when they described them to you as successful. Take a moment. I want you to really think about this. Give yourself a couple minutes to think about it before you read on.

Okay… Now think of another example. And another. Maybe, one more if you can. Now think about all the examples you have come up with in unison – what do all of the people described as ‘successful’ to you in your examples have in common? If you are like me, then in all of the conversations the person described as ‘successful’ is wealthy. It stands to reason then that from society’s perspective wealth is a measure of success, and thus, the wealthier you are, the more successful you are. If you disagree with this definition of success, that is totally fine. I am not saying that the definition is correct, however, I hope that the exercise above is sufficient to demonstrate the basis for my understanding of society’s definition of success.

Wealth may be one valid measure of success, however it is just that – ONE measure of success. There are many other possible measures of success that seem too frequently to be overlooked by our current society. An easy example is a stay at home mother or father. Stay at home mothers and fathers most likely do not generate wealth, and as such no longer is this considered by society to be a successful path for one to take in life. YOU MUST BECOME A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSMAN / BUSINESSWOMAN!! GET A CAREER. NOW!!! Society, to me, seems to insinuate that the challenge of raising children is easy relative to challenge of pursuing a career. Now is a good time to tell you a story… In the year 2012 I was working at the head office of a large New Zealand bank. At the bank I worked in a small team of 20 or so people. One of the people I worked with was an Asian man in his mid-40s. He used to talk a LOT, would laugh a lot, and would gamble at Skycity every morning before work. Needless to say, I liked this guy a lot… I’ll even admit to you that we went to the casino together during lunch breaks on more than one occasion… One day he came into work and was sniffing frequently and regularly blowing his nose. He was slightly sick. I asked why he didn’t just stay home and take the day off. His response:

“Well, I woke up and I told my wife that I didn’t feel too good. I told her I might not go to work. Then my wife told me that would be great. She said if I stayed home I could help look after the kids [he had five children]. I told her, “oooooh I think I’m feeling better!!!” and jumped out of bed.”

Maybe (or maybe not) you are wondering what my definition of success is. Well, for starters, that is one doozy of a question, but I’ll do my best to answer! One key part of success for me is that it is not tangible. It is not becoming rich, it is not obtaining an award, it is not completing a degree, it is not finding a job etc. If success were a material, it would definitely be a fluid. That is to say it changes shape easily and often.

This easiest way I can think of to demonstrate my definition of success is to tell another story of sorts. Here goes: Think of yourself as a body of water flowing through a stream. The stream has walls, falls, rapids etc that you, as the body of water flowing through the stream, meander through, drop over and navigate. Think of the waterfalls in the stream as analogous to success. Flowing over the edge of a waterfall is analogous to the achievement of success. Once the body of water (i.e. you) are released over the edge of the waterfall, the body of water descends into a glorious free fall – totally unbound by the walls of the stream for a moment. Success! However, it is only for a moment. The body of water then crashes down at the base of the waterfall with a powerful splash. After this, the water (i.e. you) reforms within the walls of the stream and flows once again, searching for the next waterfall. In other words, the body of water is unable to pause within the middle of it’s glorious unbounded free fall descent. It cannot rest upon the success it has achieved.

Hopefully the above is understandable and relatable. A natural question that follows is this: if the free fall joy of flowing over a waterfall (i.e. achieving success) is temporary in nature, then why should we strive for it at all? I believe the answer to this is simple. The unbounded free fall of the waterfall is such an amazing feeling that we would be stupid not to strive to flow over as many waterfalls as we can find! However, it is very important that while searching for our next waterfall, we also enjoy meandering and flowing gently down the stream.

For completeness, if I had to put my definition of success into a sentence, then it would be this: “success is understanding that life’s successes and failures are harmonious”.

Now it’s my turn to ask you: How do you define success?

3 thoughts on “The definition of success”

  1. Hi Mark – thought I would kick off the debate in here. To me “success” has to be goal or at least activity specific. Take the example of the PWC partner (successful businessman) who slept with his EA (unsuccessful husband) – most people would consider a dickhead and not someone to strive for. So when someone refers to a successful businessperson, it’s not necessarily the case that they also think that person is what Nat and I like to call “winning at life”, or maybe more generally we could say “happy”.

    If you ask what society thinks of as a happy person, I think you get a different set of responses than simply rich. Your free fall seems to relate to a state of happiness rather than the achievement of a goal

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    1. Thanks for the comment Bronnie!! I love your insight. I’m interested to hear more about your distinction between achieving a goal (i.e. success) and achieving happiness (i.e. “winning at life”).

      Glad you picked up on the waterfall free fall as akin to a state of happiness. This was my intention. To me, happiness is the ultimate goal. The ultimate success. Assuming this is true I believe that we as a society should be happiness-focused, rather than success-focused. They are the same thing anyway!

      Definitely agree that if you ask society what a happy person looks like it is going to be very very different depending on who you ask, and may have nothing at all to do with riches. We are all very different beings after all, with different things that make us happy.

      I like your example of the cheating PwC partner. Here are some of my thoughts… It would seem unlikely that this person would consider themselves to be successful after they have cheated on their wife (unless they really have no conscience, which I do not believe is possible). Whilst we, as observers, can make the distinction between his success in business and his failures as a husband, I do not believe the PwC partner is capable of making such a distinction. The reason? He is a human. He may be able to rationalise something like “I may have failed as a husband, but at least I am still successful in business”. But this is a surface level rationalisation. Success in business does not take away his indiscretion, nor does it take away the pain it caused to another human being. Success in business does not appeal at all to his humanity. What would happen if he was to dig a little deeper and ask himself: Why did I cheat? Why did I fail as a husband? Was it because the cheating made me happy? Why did it make me happy? Am I not happy already? Only he has the answers to these questions, however it may be that his perceived successes are not actually successes to him at all. The answer is not, in my opinion, as simple as “he is just a jerk”!

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  2. I think of an individual success as achieving what you set out to. It is therefore fluid in terms of whether that is a good job, a degree, wealth, well rounded children etc.

    Successful I believe refers to how many successes you have reached.

    As a result, somebody who is born poor may feel successful by working so hard to leave the world with two kids who have the wealth to have a better life than them. This is a selfless mindset and they may not have had happiness along the way, but are content with their life body of work when they die. At this point you can fully reflect.

    Other people just want to live life as happy as they can be for as much of it as they can be, and at the end of the day if they can look back on their life and be content then they were also successful.

    Other people want to solve things they deem wrong with the world and so on and so on.

    Therefore the definition of ultimate success or being successful is an ability to achieve your goals whatever they are/were. The amount of regrets you still have that point factor in also. Each person’s goals are different.

    Your right that people describe people as successful most commonly as either rich or having affected the world in a positive way as these are the most tangible things you can notice.

    Liked by 1 person

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