My brother and I had a discussion recently about success. My brother made the argument that anyone can be successful; they just have to work hard. I immediately disagreed. I felt it important to point out that, while maybe anybody can be successful, the scales are tipped quite unfairly in favor of some over others, making it much more likely for certain people to attain “success” over others.
This discussion ended soon after it started because my brother doesn’t like to argue with me (probably because I usually win:)). However short of a conversation it was, it didn’t fail to raise some concerns and questions for me. Hoo-rah. The biggest thing that I was reminded of during our conversation was that everyone defines success differently. It’s important to me that I create my own definition of success, and that I show that there are other ways to be successful that don’t necessarily match up with commonly accepted views.
The first thing that I think is so incredibly important is to not equate success with monetary gain. I think this conflation is one of the biggest issues with success rhetoric. Everybody has a different definition of success. To my brother, success=money. Even my initial reaction was to assume that when he mentioned success, he was talking about money. Because I’m an anti-capitalist monster, the amount of money in my bank account does not determine my success level (A good thing, considering the state of my bank account at this very moment).
Many people also define success as being number one, beating other people. Consequently, if someone “beats” them, they are unsuccessful. I guess there’s nothing wrong with competition or defining success as having beaten everyone else in your field, but that mindset is just exhausting for me. I’ve lived a good portion of my life this way, thinking that I had to beat everyone and be the best in order to be successful. I would rather focus on myself and how I’m doing. In terms of grades, for example, I’m working to change my mindset so that it doesn’t matter to me what scores everyone else gets, as long as mine is a good one with which I am happy. Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way. I’m trying, though, because my definition of success has more to do with my personal improvement rather than if I’m better than others.
Another point in terms of competition and “beating other people.” In an LDS General Conference talk, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “We are not diminished when someone else is added upon*.” I love this quote. I love what it means. Just because someone else gets something, does something well, gets a good score, etc., this does not mean that we are worth less. This is how I like to apply this quote: Sometimes I get As on tests or papers, and other people in the class do as well. Sometimes I feel like these other people didn’t work as hard as I did. Maybe that’s true, but it’s really none of my business. I got the grade that I worked hard for, and that’s what matters. It’s not up to me to determine what other people deserve; it’s my job to do the best work I can for myself. I am not unsuccessful because someone else succeeds.
I also think this point is important for the feminists in the room. Women are socialized to break down other women, to compete with them mercilessly. A little reminder: you are not unintelligent, ugly, unimportant, etc. just because some other woman is called intelligent, beautiful, important, etc. Just because another woman is accomplishes something/ is complimented or encouraged doesn’t mean that you are unworthy or undeserving of praise and recognition as well. I think this is getting a little convoluted, so I’ll give an example (hopefully I’m not beating a dead horse). Whenever I used to hear someone say that another girl was pretty, I felt like I was not pretty. Whenever someone said that somebody else was smart, I felt stupid. I can still be smart and pretty at the same time as other people. Shocking, right?
To me, success is being content with yourself. It’s not stepping on other people to get what you want, and it’s not putting other people down and minimizing other people’s victories to feel better about your own. I think a person is successful when they are happy with their work, when they are happy with themselves, and when they can build other people up and encourage them to become happy with themselves. With this definition of success, in which money and power are taken out of the equation, I guess anybody can be successful. I stand–happily–corrected :).
*This talk, entitled The Laborers in the Vineyard, came from the April 2012 session of LDS General Conference. I am not LDS, but I still find this quote interesting, valuable, and worth quoting.