|D.A. Pennebaker's film "Don't Look Back"|
What is success? How is it measured? Is it related to having a fat bank account? Fame? Power? True love? Unlimited Sex? A Family? All of the above?
Many will say, in true existentialist fashion, that it depends on the individual and that everyone makes their own choice. But the truth is that success is almost always about what one doesn't have. The poor dream of money, the rich of true love, while the famous envy us and want to be like us, ordinary people with a simple life.
Often success becomes the phantom that we haunt and that in turn haunts us. People can get obsessed over it. The drive for self-improvement or, in its impossible form, the quest for perfection can be applied to pretty much any part of our lives, be it our personal trials and tribulation or those at work. At the latter, it is the sought-after promotion that goes, more often than not, hand-in-hand with a raise. As your money in the bank inflates, so does your pride.
The counter-culture, often deemed the hippie culture, has time and again challenged our notions of success. They do not believe that it can be measured by material worth. Many, in fact, turned their back on traditional life and values, such as career, family, children, house ... and experimented with notions of free love with an airy free spirit, the (almost unbearably) light feeling that deems itself immune against the push and pull of gravity. In most people's eyes, they were the epitome of failure, while they themselves were laughing at the preposterous and self-deluded vanity of the well-dressed business-person.
When it comes to success, people often see it as a form of competition. As a result, people become competitive. If everyone were successful, let us say if everyone were rich in this world, then money would, in fact, lose its value. Success is having that which others do not have. If at work I am surrounded by CEOs, I can hardly claim to be anybody special or to have achieved anything significant. It is the fact that these positions are coveted and desired that gives them value, intrinsic or not.
Moreover, success, being veritable competition, is all about winning. Nobody wants to lose and be left behind. It is, for most of us, not just about participating but we want to have something to show for. Be it a medal or a degree, any kind of recognition will do to make our efforts worth it all. Few people will brag about losing because let's face it, losing is for losers.
In short, we are driven by ambition to reach or attain that which others do not have. That explains why athletes want to break records and why the super rich are never satisfied with the amount of money and power they have. Success, in its most empowering sense, is a drive for progress, yet in its debilitating aspects, it deprives us of happiness and a balanced life. So how can we aim for success without becoming enslaved to it?
Of course, we could continue deconstructing the notion of success and go into leftist discussions of the harms and dangers of capitalism and the pitfalls of a consumer society or a psychological treatise on the ever-present dark side of human nature, where we never reach full happiness until we die. Yet it can be solved in a rather simpler fashion, namely with the all-important trait of attitude.
Attitude on its own, is something you generally do not want to have. Someone with an attitude are those who constantly complain and think they are better and more valuable than the rest. They are usually closed to learning or new experiences. However, there is such a thing as a good attitude and those are the ones who may be easygoing or even modest in their outlook.
I have previously blogged about humility, and I think it should be an important part of everyone's life, regardless of creed or economic status. By humility I do not condone stupidity; it does not mean that you let others trample all over you nor that you ignore issues or look the other way. Likewise, I do not think that turning the other cheek is the best philosophy in this world full of hungry wolves.
By humility, I mean a detached, somewhat Buddhist sense of letting things be and develop in their own fashion, what the I Ching would call Wu Wei, “acting without actions.” It does not mean to stop driving for success, but that you watch yourself and that you do not wear yourself out in the process. Having your foot always on the gas pedal does not mean you will get to your destination safe and sound. It is more about knowing when to push ahead and when to slow down.
I believe that athletes may have an ingrained sense of Wu Wei, especially if they are fully in touch with their bodies. You can push your body to amazing feats, but you have to give it also enough time to recover. We can work hard, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but we need to know when to take a break. The time off will not be time wasted but rather time well spent because you are recharging yourself and will be more likely to succeed at whatever undertaking.
The fact that many believe “time is money” has robbed many an ambitious or greedy person of several hours of sleep. And success may be about winning but it is not about speed. We can be successful in due time and again I let the variable success open to individual interpretation and meaning-making.
As you gain success and as you keep looking forward, do not forget to look back once in a while and remind yourself of being humble. During the victory triumphs of ancient Rome, the generals usually had a slave whisper in their ear memento mori, “remember you will die.” In a moment of shining glory, we often tend to forget the human predicament that we come out of dust and to dust shall return.