On Success

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

I don’t really want to get into a discussion on how to “be” successful because first I think it’s necessary to think about why, and if, that should be our aim. This is often something that is just taken for granted else where.

Why is it worth doing this analysis? Well, for starters, we might “win” and become successful and then realise that it’s a Pyrrhic victory – we sacrificed too much to reach our goal. For instance, the fishermen pictured in their boats in the photo above may be far more successful than any of us in the developed world, and yet they’ll display none of the usual traits we normally associate with success such as wealth and status.

So what is success?

Well, the dictionary gives us a few definitions:

  1. The favourable outcome of something attempted

  2. An action, performance, etc., that is characterised by success

  3. A person or thing that is successful

  4. The attainment of wealth, fame, etc.

I think we all understand definition number one and two and want to become definition number three, so what about definition number four? Well, that’s the one I want to explore. Are there alternative ways to be successful? Let’s find out.

He who dies with the most toys wins.

The above quote by the extravagant promoter of capitalism and publisher of Forbes Magazine, Malcom Forbes, is often thought of summing up the whole ethos of the 1980s, the “decade of indulgence”. Personally, I think that it is just as suited to describe the mindset of vast swathes of the population today.

This mindset, which focuses on the acquisition of money and material goods, has actually been around for several centuries. The whole idea has sprung from the so-called fact that to be successful means becoming rich and owning lots of stuff. As a society, we place a huge amount of weight on external and almost completely neglect internal qualities which are not so obvious.

I think a more accurate saying would be something along the lines of:

He who dies with the most toys is, nonetheless, still dead.

Why do we equate vast wealth with success and happiness? My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that we are under the impression that we live in a Meritocracy, a society which hands out rewards based on how capable and deserving you are.

So, the theory goes, one goes to school, studies hard, qualifies to go to a good university and then lands a great job, earns lots of money and satisfaction and that’s that.

Conversely, if you don’t study, work hard and the rest of it, you will end up on benefits, universally despised and you will lack the money to buy the things that make you happy.

For the first time in history, people get what they deserve. Surely there couldn’t be any fairer way for society to work?

I guess not, if you agree on the definition of success and that money and material possessions will lead to satisfaction and happiness.

As the [infamous Apple marketing slogan][1] put it, I would like to “Think Different”.

Mark Twain went as far as to say,

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

So, let’s approach this from a vaguely Socratic point of view: let’s formulate a statement and then trying to prove it wrong. I think that an apt statement to begin with is something along the lines of:

Earning plenty of money and owning material things makes you successful and happy.

So, let’s analyse this by breaking it down into two statements:

  1. Earning plenty money will make you successful and happy

  2. Owning material things will make you successful and happy

I think the first statement is quite easy to disprove. Has anyone ever, in human history, been able to be happy without earning plenty of money? Well… yes. In fact, in the past there have been entire societies that have not had money and obviously our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not worship the almighty dollar. Unless we can believe that every single human being led an utterly wretched, unsatisfied and unhappy life until the point in time at which money was in general circulation, we must conclude that statement number one is incorrect or – at the very least – requires modification.

The first obvious criticism of this point is that perhaps earning money only makes you happy in a society in which money is in general circulation. The possibility that money can make you happy only in a society in which money is in general circulation is obvious, after all, if money wasn’t in general circulation, you wouldn’t be able to earn any. Not exactly rocket science so far…

So perhaps it is worth examining the lives of people in the present day who have large amounts of money and also those who don’t. Copious amount of studies (see here, here , here and here) have shown that happiness and money are not correlated. If we could reliably graph happiness and money, the resulting graph would flatten pretty quickly.

So happiness goes up as earnings go up, just as might assume but then happiness flatlines. Why is that? I think that the point at which is flatlines in the point where we can afford the basics to function in the society in which we live. This includes, but is not limited to, things such as a roof over our head, healthy food and clothes to go out in public.

The amount of money required to reach this point is obviously going to be different depending on where you live, for the amount of money you need just to afford the basics in Switzerland, you could live, materialistically speaking, like a king in the Cambodian countryside.

Let’s now move onto point number two. “Owning material things will make you successful and happy”. Again, has someone ever been successful and happy without owing material objects?

Should we dismiss or discredit of all of Schubert’s music because he didn’t manage to use it to buy things? Schubert was the quintessential Romantic composer, one could go as far to say that he fully embodied the popular conception of the Romantic artist, single-mindedly devoted to his art and working in poverty and obscurity. His genius was only recognised after his unfortunate death at the early age of 31.

I don’t think many would call Schubert a failure, yet he didn’t manage to amass a fortune or vast amounts of material objects.

By the way, if you are not familiar with Schubert’s work, I highly recommend it.

Another point to mention is the spread of minimalism and how people have found that they can be happier without as many things as before.

Steve Jobs Minimalism Apartment

You might not recognise him, but this is a photo of Steve Jobs. Obviously he didn’t live his whole life with this level of minimalism, but nevertheless, here is clearly a man who doesn’t own a huge about of material objects yet was, by any standards, highly successful.

I think it’s worth taking the time to look and how historical societies define success. Think about it, if we discover that success has meant different things to different people in different times, perhaps this means that success (and perhaps happiness) is only relative.

We’ll come back to this highly interesting idea of relative success soon, and I will update this essay to reflect that.

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