A Three Part Series Dedicated to Exploring the New Meaning of Success
Part II: Redefining Success
About 10 years after the Rolling Stone article I mentioned in Part I of this series, author Alain de Botton offered an updated version of success in his 2005 book Status Anxiety. In it, he suggested that we define ourselves in comparison to our peers who have made different choices from us. That is, we don’t compare ourselves to the generic “1%,” but rather whatever percent we went to school with, know, or otherwise identify with. Within this slice, those who make more money than us, have nicer automobiles or houses, and seem to be taking endless vacations (at least according to their Facebook posts), are the source of a deep-seated anxiety.
I mention this book because it has a lot to do with how we view traditional success. Referencing Part I of this series, it follows that if success is narrowly defined and assigned to only a chosen few; and, if we live in an increasingly inter-connected world where we are bombarded with those who are more successful than us, we may never admit to ourselves that we are successful, and as such, never embrace our own success. Our rapid embrace of globalization and global interconnectedness only exacerbates de Botton’s anxieties, and ensures that there will always be someone more successful than us.
But this is a sad vision of success, and I refuse to think we are doomed to it. What we need is to re-define success, putting aside the global community for a second. The reason for this is that success is naturally disinclined to globalization because “local” is where one’s impact really takes root. Those who do end up as globally successful usually do so because their local successes are amplified through media or other outlets, and become models for global action. Think of Nelson Mandela’s impact on the world due to his – at first – very local successes. Thus, even though there is likely someone in Iceland or San Francisco who on paper is like you, but who made different choices than you and you now deem “more successful,” those people can’t make a difference in your community; you will.
This is all to say that I want to offer a different view of success – one that casts embracing success as a critical issue for the economic and social vitality of any community: Success is a series of tradeoffs and choices (as so much of life is) that results in the ability to give something back to one’s community: that could be money, but could also be in the form of mentoring, knowledge-sharing, or volunteering. Someone who has something to give is a successful person.
This view still casts success in light of accomplishment, but it expands that sense of accomplishment to embrace a more holistic understanding, and it presents success as a beginning, not an end. In other words, you have learned to play the trumpet, now you can learn to play jazz.
If we view success globally instead of locally, we miss out on the benefits of sharing our success with our communities because we have a hard time admitting that we are successful.
In Part III, I’ll explore what it might look like if we all embrace our success and use it to enhance our immediate surroundings.