What is Success?


Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
― Confucius

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.”
― Albert Einstein

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
― Herman Melville

“The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you.”
― Bette Midler

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Success is a state of achievement–a fulfillment of one’s endeavor and its related objectives. It manifests in human experience in varied forms and degrees of importance. Success inspires life amid struggles, problems and difficulties. It could be personal and hence subjective or social/public and thus intersubjective. Success gives us a feeling of exhilaration. Pleasure in this sense is an inherent accompaniment of success. With all these notions in mind, there seems to be no other concept to describe success but goodness. Success is good and therefore a most meaningful reason to celebrate.  And if it is good, does it necessarily follow that success is ethical?

By and large, success within the full range of human experience is beyond good and evil (with apologies to Nietzsche). Its so-called goodness is a matter of feeling. In other words, it is good because one feels good after a successful realization of her/his plan. The plan might be beneficial and thus good but it could also be malevolent and therefore evil. We ourselves have witnessed in this world myriad of events successfully effected to the detriment and destruction of particular human circumstances, both in the individual and the social contexts. From a relativistic viewpoint, success could be construed as “morally good” only by those who have benefitted in the achievement of a goal without assessing more deeply the implication of such achievement to other people who have been adversely affected by such a success. In this case, one’s success is defeat to another and this seems to be a natural stuff of life in this world.

Success outside the parameters of the ethical is fundamentally an existential issue. From the perspective of subjectivity, an individual has the sole predisposition to set her/his agenda and the standard of its successful attainment. A plan is conceived with all its practicable details relevant to actual implementation along with the measurement tools to evaluate all performances and landmarks of progress until the final moment when everything is done at last according to plan. That is success which in this particular context is uniquely predetermined, influenced and guided by no one but the planner her/himself. It is her/his idea, dream and endeavor–an airtight project whose success or failure rests on her/his sense of seriousness and determination alone, no more, no less. Nobody from the outside (as s/he has never allowed anybody) has ever dictated her/him on this matter as to what ought to be her/his standard of success in the realization of such a project. An overwhelming feeling of utter fulfillment and satisfaction is all that matters; a”spiritual” reward that transcends the material and the pecuniary, so to speak.

But in a lot of instances, the individual existential predisposition is undermined (as people in most cases allow it to be undermined) by the standards of social conventions even in matters associated with how one should view, evaluate and judge success. Society “dictates” us with the signposts of success and all the material circumstances that surround it. Being submerged in and swallowed by all these social indicators detaches and alienates us from our personal signification of success. In the process, we develop within our cultural apparatuses a sense of success which in reality is nothing but a case of toeing the line of what society defines as success. But society is not as simple as how it is defined in sociology. Through time, society has achieved the prerogative to dictate what success is because there are “power-brokers” that have set in motion certain institutional components within society whose activities need to be primed and constantly sustained to maintain the stability of and hence continually empower these power-brokers. They are the actual dictators in society that have set for us standards of success we should be swallowing hook-line-and-sinker to be called successful. We find them in government, in the corporate world, in educational institutions, in commercial business establishments and of course among the middle-class who are their most effective “advertising agents”.

Success in this sense becomes more of a show and display of one’s status in life; something that other people ought to see. At its basest form, success is measured in the clothes one wears as well as in the ostentatious display of jewelry and other material status symbols like the car one drives, the food s/he eats and the social circle s/he is associated with. Success in the corporate world is exemplified by an executive who has risen through the ranks and is now earning a five-figure monthly pay commensurate to the high-level post s/he occupies in the corporate ladder. Society in general has been sort of brainwashed by this kind of mental framework and movements within it has been transformed into a rat race of people trying to outmaneuver each other regardless of whether one does it smoothly on a clear alley or stepping on others’ toes in a highly competitive condition.

Within the academe’s faculty components, success is measured the same way. One has to have at least a master’s degree and at most a doctorate to be called successful for such an achievement entails a higher paycheck. In fact, these people so visibly flaunt their graduate and post-graduate degrees around as if such is the end-all of the success they’ve achieved and for which they should be given the highest respect on campus. In many instances, however, their success is a farce because more than their degrees, they have nothing to boast of. No worthwhile research studies; never published in refereed prestigious journals; no citation of published works in scholarly treatises. Their only claim of success is in the degrees they have and in the theses or dissertations they allegedly wrote which in many cases are notorious plagiarization of portions of the hundreds of references they used. We find these obnoxious academics in second-class and third-class universities–which are actually “legitimized diploma mills”–anywhere in the modern world. Nevertheless, this is a non-issue in honest-to-goodness prestigious institutions like the prominent ones in Great Britain and the Ivy-League universities in the US, among others in other parts of the world. Success is measured more in terms of the distinguished academics’ scholarly achievements through the valuable research studies they have done and not in the paychecks they of course are entitled to.

In the final analysis, I’d rather value success more as a celebration of life in the silence of my heart. It is not something that the dictates of social conventions set for me. I measure my success in the pleasure of doing what I want to freely do. My success doesn’t depend on other people’s evaluation and judgment. It is not something shown and displayed ostentatiously to be admired, praised and hailed publicly. My success is in the attainment of certain wishes and desires projected in the past and are now a reality. Being a poor man with just enough to sustain my daily needs and enjoy the comfort of a normal life, it could be a no-brainer thing for the modern materialistic world to judge my condition more as a failure than a success. Past failures and tragedies still haunt me in solitude but life has somehow opened small pockets of beautiful things to feast and celebrate on in the silence of my heart which no money can ever buy. This for me is success.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 11 February 2015

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