On success

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

– Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

greek-mythologiesOne of the most interesting social developments in western economies over the past two centuries has been the rise of the concept of meritocracy, where our status and wealth should follow directly from the extent of our talents and effort. Go back a few centuries and the fact that someone was a wealthy landowner would not be seen as a reflection of their capabilities or commitment, but simply their birth. Likewise, if someone was a peasant, that did not necessarily indicate a lack of aptitude – rather, it was their position at birth, and there were nearly no circumstances in which they could change that. Unfortunately (or fortunately), your prospects in life were mostly independent of your individual traits.

Meritocracy has been an incredible engine of social progress – we live in a far more economically mobile society than any before us, in which there is broad consensus that not only should we receive in proportion to what we contribute, but also that for the most part we do. Let’s put to the side whether this is empirically accurate (read here about why it’s not) – the fact is that we were all raised to believe we can be and do anything if we are talented and work hard.

And so enters in popular culture and popular wisdom the relatively modern notion of the ‘succesful’ person, and the topic of this blog. On first glance, it appears somewhat vaguely defined, and as the cliche goes ‘success’ means different things to different people. But I think if we are honest with ourselves there are really only a few archetypes of success we recognise in society. They are the kinds of people you would be particularly proud to introduce to your friends if you were hosting a dinner party – the professionally succesful businessman or entrepreneur, the celebrated artist or enetertainer, the string-pulling politician, the trophy-winning athlete, and perhaps one or two others. We would all love to be them, and perhaps many of us still believe, deep down inside, that one day we will.

Actually, the question I think we should be asking ourselves is ‘Do I really want to be succesful?’ Feels like an odd one to pose, and the received answer from popular wisdom is obvious. After all, an entire motivation industry has been built up over recent decades to help people ‘unlock’ their potential by learning from other heroes of the journey towards success. I constantly see articles appearing on my Facebook with titles like ‘Ten mental habits of succesful people’. The default position on the question is clear.

Unfortunately, as a species we are not particularly good at working out what we need to do (and not do) to make ourselves happy. Alain de Botton, in his (excellent) book ‘Consolations of Philosophy’, writes that we are like headache sufferers in Medieval Europe who, believing their symptoms to be due to an excess of air in the skull, had someone drill a small hole in their heads only to die shortly after from a brain aneurism. The treatment was disastrous because the understanding of the root cause was so flawed.

Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus had an interesting take on what human happiness requires. Humans have basic necessities that must be met – food, shelter, clothing. Beyond this, Epicurus argued that the sources of happiness were quite straightforward: friendship – deep personal relationships with kindred spirits; freedom – to spend our time as we see fit in pursuit of our own passions; and reflection – on the world, and on the sources of our anxieties. Quite a simple formula really. Unfortunately, failing to recognise what it takes for us to be happy, we chase after all the wrong solutions.

Take the pursuit of money, for example. I suspect there are very few people who invest their lives accumulating wealth to purchase beautiful homes, vintage car collections, and haute couture out of a deep passion for craftsmanship. Rather, people spend conspicuously with the intention, conscious or perhaps subconscious, simply of demonstrating that they have the money to spend. Why would we do such a silly thing? Making money is hard work, after all!

Epicurus would tell us, perhaps, that we bought that Gucci handbag because we are lonely. We lack the validation we need from deep human relationships, so we look to inspire envy instead. If people want to be us, they will of course want to be friends with us, we tell ourselves. Perhaps the next time you see someone driving a Ferrari, sympathy may be a more appropriate response – a friend, not a Ferrari, was what they really needed.

Of course, there are parallel arguments for all the other wrong-headed ways we go about pursuing success in order to make ourselves happy. The celebrity who spends their life pursuing fame may have suffered more than you might expect.

The tragedy is that such pursuits not only fail to provide what we truly need to be happy, but may in fact take us further away from these things. A life spent pursuing money and fame is likely to leave us with few true friends, little freedom to do as we please, and perhaps less impetus to stop and think deeply about who we are and what we want from our short time on the earth.

Ozymandias – the poem at the beginning of this post – reminds us that even the greatest men will eventually be forgotten. Ultimately, our time here is brief, especially our young years.

All this is not to say that we should not bother trying to make the most of our talents. By all means, do your best and live with dedication. But hopefully it lends us a new perspective – to more thoughtfully evaluate our reasons for pursuing success, and perhaps to be kinder with ourselves when we don’t achieve what we set our hearts on.

I’ll finish with another lovely poem, this time from an octogenarian imparting a little bit of life wisdom.

If I had my life to live over again,
I’d make more mistakes next time.
I would relax.
I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take very few things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains,
watch more sunsets,
and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream
and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles,
but fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I’m one of those people who have been
sensible and sane.
Oh, I’ve had my moments
and if I had it to do over again,
I’d have nothing else.
Just moments, one after another,
instead of living so many years ahead each day.
I’ve been one of those people who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle,
a raincoat and a parachute.
If I had it to do over again,
I would go places and do things
and travel lighter than I have.
If I had my life to live over again,
I would go barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

– I’d Pick More Daisies, Nadine Stair (aged 85)

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