Ever since I've been old enough to think, I've taken offense at the use of the word "successful" to describe a human being.
In my earlier years I was puzzled, curious how such a vague adjective could stand alone as a way to compliment someone without further clarification: successful at what? Success seemed to be the opposite of death, but I could not grasp the tacit consensus surrounding its meaning. Over time, I learned that the word is the tip of an iceberg; submerged beneath each utterance is a conglomeration of many of our society's worst fetishes.
My protest has generally been silent. I've refrained from using the word "successful" to describe people, but I have not gone out of my way to try to disabuse anyone of the notion that endlessly accumulating wealth or prestige is a path to fulfillment -- nor will I here; if you have trouble understanding that most people sleep no better on a bed made of money, then I can't help you.
Still, some of the unspoken societal assumptions about what it means to be successful have colored my worldview. Whether it's because I'm the son of immigrants or because rap is the only genre of music that has continued to speak to me regardless of my age or mood, pride in the hustle has always run through my veins. So while for me it's never been about money or prestige, I did conceive of the realization of my goals as an ascending path. But over time I have found even this conceptualization of success to have its own problems.
The fallacy of success as ascent
By many accounts, it is the passage of time that makes the greatest mockery of human endeavor. The folly of Ozymandias, Shelley's king of kings who famously taunted humanity to look at his works and despair, was his short-sightedness; little did he realize that his rule would not only end but also be forgotten.
The inevitable disappearance of status and accomplishment, however, is not necessarily the most immediate case against pursuing it single-mindedly. Well before reckoning with mortality, people experience self-doubt and new anxieties at every level of accomplishment. A compelling longitudinal study of the super-rich shows how millionaires immediately develop concerns about becoming multimillionaires and billionaires. Billionaires compete to make it into the top 100 of the The Forbes World's Billionaires list; then the quest is to become the richest person on earth for longer than the other richest people on earth. A successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur needs to become a successful serial entrepreneur. American senators, easily among the most powerful politicians in the world, often agonize over getting a shot at the presidency. Every president dreads leaving office after only one term. The first term is about the second term, then come calculations to ensure a powerful post-presidency. All these aspirations precede anxiety over how posterity will judge them.
When one views ambition fulfillment as ascent, a problem emerges in that there is no top of the ladder. Humans have an infinite capacity to acclimate to new altitudes, which always furnish new sets of aspirations and paths to loss.
One need not be conventionally power hungry to be afflicted by a view of the world that sees fulfillment as a climb up a mountain. Whether it's running a faster mile or being able to afford an apartment big enough to have all your friends over, we have a way of deluding ourselves into thinking the ultimate vista lies just around the next bend, if one toils for long enough. This phenomenon is sometimes called the hedonic treadmill: chasing after a promise of happiness but always staying in the same place.
Some idealized state of being in an elevated future is generally likely to be a mirage. The fact that this will not bring happiness is one case against it on its own terms, but this is not the greatest reason to oppose it.
Toward what end?
I have a very close friend who loves bikes almost as much as people. After graduating high school, he boarded a train to Chicago and slept in a shed outside a Home Depot until he found a place to live. He worked as a bike messenger, then in a bike shop on the South Side that promotes ecological practices and teaches mechanical skills and business literacy to boys and girls from the rougher neighborhoods in the area. He now builds bikes in Oregon, and uses shops he works in to promote the bicycle as the most sustainable and prosocial vehicle for a country addicted to cars and a century that will see the end of thousands of animal species. Next year he will go to Cuba and live in Guatemala to see family and share new practices for manufacturing cheap cargo bicycles.
He is one of the most self-possessed and healthiest human beings I've ever met, cares deeply for his neighbors, and has all the kinds of freedom that nourish him most fundamentally as a human being. He is committed in spirit and practice to building things that make the world function better for its most marginalized members.
Yet many people we both know talk about the man as if he's gone mad. He has no degrees, no prospect of making a significant amount of money, and as one might expect of somebody who talks a lot about what the earth will be like hundreds of years from now, he moves and talks quite slowly, replying to phone calls and email at a pre-Internet pace.
In a society where somebody who devotes their life to civilizational foresight is eccentric and we reserve the word "visionary" for titans of industry like Steve Jobs -- a man who cried over product design, who sacrificed his life to perfect the art of selling us stuff -- then we may want to reconsider what we're looking for.
Using the word successful unaccompanied by any hint of an end is amoral or a sign of sloth. The former because neglecting to inspect why one races down a certain path signals our society's pathological disinterest in the moral substance of conduct. The latter because it operates as a kind of shorthand that concedes the purpose of human enterprise to the cues of capitalist production and the esteem of the elite.
In a free society the word success shouldn't be a point of consensus but a teeming arena showcasing competing ideals for how to live. What should those values be? As a pluralist I'm disinclined to define them. But as a communitarian I'll offer one obvious starting point: any theory of success that isn't alive to the ubiquitous fracturing of social relations is worth attacking. This is not a particularly edgy stance -- the founding fathers of modern social science in the 19th century, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, were all vexed by alienation in Western settings. Today, we have stories in The Onion titled "Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown."
How did this happen? When did we let rootedness become a vice, and home an albatross? What does it mean when we've collectively decided that cultivating rich social ties is at odds with accomplishment? In human history, deliberate isolation is generally a form of punishment. The prevailing model of success today rewards its greatest exemplars with incarceration in skyscrapers. One perk of being subjected to solitary confinement in America's actual prison system is that unlike the executives they're told they should've been, they aren't chained to smart phones.
To hell with "happiness"
I was raised a Muslim, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, attended at a Quaker school, hung out with Buddhists, loved people with many gods and have been a devoted atheist since my teenage years. Relaying this experience to people is sometimes met with a frown, concern that I am without a rudder.
But I have the fortune of saying that existential disorientation has never been a problem for me. While lacking an official set of instructions can be a source of despair for some, it is liberating for others, especially those of us who view inquiry into the nature of existence as a good enough reason to be alive.
The specter of nihilism does not hang in the shadows for all the godless. In fact, the very faculties and ambition required for the search for meaning signify that something is at stake, for all sentient beings are on a basic level led by the impulse to avoid suffering, and any probe into meaning is undergirded by this impulse. If you can feel pain and injustice and exploitation, and can see that the beings you share the earth with can as well, then that should be enough to keep you busy. In other words, our work is already cut out for us.
I mention these thoughts on purpose in an essay evaluating the word success because in the American conversation they're often considered discrete realms, boxes to be ticked off. For so many, success is arrived at through career, purpose through religion and the nuclear family. But resolving to contemplate and address big problems is the sturdiest anchor of them all, settling concerns about human purpose and criteria for achievement in one fell swoop.
I'll even go so far as to say that this paradigm can help do away with today's "happiness" obsession. While scientifically examining the factors that predict why people describe themselves as happy is useful, the aggregate effect of positive psychology discourse frames happiness as an objective or a prize. All I can say is that the most deeply content people I know are defined by love -- of humanity, of knowledge, of the earth -- that tends to take the shape of duty instead of desire.
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