If you were to stop a group of people in the street and ask them what they thought the idea of ‘success’ entailed, you would likely get three dominant answers: money, power, or glory. Probably in that order, too. After all, even the Oxford Dictionary defines success as “the attainment of wealth, fame or social status.” I realised how much my life was affected by this stereotypical definition when I was watching an episode of ‘Insight’ with my mother, which focused on parents who pushed their children to excel in all sorts of areas of life. Why? To become what their parents consider successful. Or, as one mother so eloquently put it, so that “[her daughter] can live in [a] really big house, in [a] nice suburb and [that] she can travel in […] business class or first class”. I thought to myself, damn, here I am with a goal in life that will almost certainly not allow me to fly first class (I’m doing a philosophy major for goodness sake)… Am I ruining my life, choosing to be unsuccessful?
In an effort to rebuild my shattered ego, I went on the hunt for alternative answers to what success means. I was certain that I wasn’t the only one struggling to reconcile what I consider success, with what my family, my tutors and the media consider it to be. After asking around in various circles, I found that there were two main camps: people who indeed consider success to revolve around wealth, power and recognition, and others that focus on happiness and the little things in life.
Status-associated success was an interesting one. Before asking people what they thought, I believed that the ones who followed that line of thought were the ones who sit at the front of the classroom, hand in draft essay plans the day after the lecturer releases questions and dislike getting anything lower than an HD. I rapidly realised that this brutal assessment was entirely incorrect. Many of them believe that, in a world where money means influence, attaining status is the only way to create positive changes. This includes funding research, development, any way of helping people at home and abroad. I found this ideal particularly prominent in children, who told me their big dreams of becoming millionaires and helping the other children they see on TV.
Problems with this way of considering success arise when the pressure to perform exceeds the enjoyment one experiences in one’s life. Wanting to excel, and to achieve success by becoming an icon for thousands, if not millions of people, is a dream that many of us have. But once that dream becomes an obsession, that consumes everyday life, it is easy to forget about the days that tick by. The long-term urge to succeed can, in the short-term, lead to disappointment and a sense of failure. Another interviewee told me that, for her, success was an emotion that was pre-determined by her family and society: it is not personal, it has nothing to do with ‘doing the best you can’ (quite a powerful Australian expression), because there are no other options other than doing the best, out of everyone. Full stop, the end.
On the opposite end of the scale, we have emotional success. The two sides are not completely separate, of course; the first group also feels emotional success just as this group experiences status success. But their focuses are different. A description that really hit me was that success was about celebrating the small things, and perhaps making life better for you or someone else, in the short-term or the long-term. Perhaps achieving success is within reach every day, with every simple gesture you offer to others. This ‘short-term’ opinion is the one that appeals most to me, perhaps simply because I struggle to define the long-term meaning of making someone’s life better (it’s rather changeable, isn’t it?), let alone applying a definition to a plan.
When talking to people about their understanding of emotional success, I discovered what appealed to me most. They all shared the opinion that it was a present-focussed manner of looking at the word, in stark contrast to the future oriented view of the first group. The idea that I could define how successful I was every day was a mood-lifter, to say the least. Getting out of bed before eight o’clock was finally a significant action. I say this lightly, but for some of my interviewees, this really did mean a lot. They arrived at their short-term understanding of success when struggling through periods of their life when giving every-day small actions became a way of staying alive, if not well. It was far easier than working towards far away goals.
The fact that it was easier to have short-term goals did not mean that these people didn’t still attach importance to status success. Emotional success is a lighter, more achievable version of status success. It provides them with something to look forward to every day, whether it be making others happy or through small personal achievements, as opposed to waiting for semester results, graduation, or job opportunities. There is an understanding of the importance of these things, their necessity in our world, but there is also an agreement that, without the small emotionally charged goals, status success will not mean much. Money, power and glory really don’t buy happiness, but congratulate yourself every day for making someone smile and I’m sure you will feel far better.
The outcome of this was that I felt an awful lot better. Yes, I am doing a BA. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be successful in life, thank you very much. My HECS debt will take me longer to pay off, my average income will be lower than the average holder of a science degree, I will most likely struggle more to hold people’s attention at dinner parties, and I probably won’t ever be able to buy a chalet/beach house/jungle bungalow to spend my holidays, but I am not aiming for these definitions of success. I can be successful every day of my life, and set myself long-term goals that are dreams, but not illusions. I can strive to make the world a better place through my own line of work, because it’s not just doctors and lawyers who help in society. Success is in the eye of the beholder, and the most important of those beholders is you. Defining success as wealth and power is fine, but celebrating the small steps along the way, and reaching out to make another’s life a little better, can help make that journey more enjoyable, and a success in itself.