Is it good? Is it bad? Does it actually matter?
IF THERE is one thing the world's great philosophers and thinkers have agreed on, it's this: that the wise never seek fame and worldly success, for these are but shallow things that crumble to dust in time. Or at least that's what the famous philosophers who have achieved worldly success say. What the others might have thought, we do not know.
You might suspect some self-serving bias in the philosophers' diagnosis, After all, if you're in a line of work that is unlikely to make you rich or famous in your own lifetime, it's very handy if you believe that fame and riches don't matter. Though there may be some truth to that, the ambitious would be wise not to dismiss philosophical scepticism of success entirely.
What the philosophers have been most opposed to is what might be called Ozymandias Syndrome: the belief that power and wealth grants you a sort of immortality that elevates you above the herd of mankind. Shelley ripped this idea to shreds in his poem about a statue, now reduced to a couple of stumped legs and rubble, with the plinth inscribed with the words, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Ozymandias is an extreme case, but lesser delusions of grandeur can be seen in many people who seek success. One reason why we find such people tragically comical is that we live in a world where everyone is an armchair psychologist, and one of the maxims we have internalised is that you should try to do your best, not necessarily be the best. On paper this is a sensible strategy, because while everyone can do the former, by definition, in any given field, only one person can be the best.
Too much reality a bad thing?
But isn't there a case that this pragmatic realism is the parent to mediocrity? Perhaps too much reality is a bad thing. We may laugh at people who look themselves in the mirror every day and shout "You're the best!" but is it really possible to excel if you merely think you're OK? The person who walks away from defeat thinking "I did my best" is less likely to bounce back better than someone who thinks, "I must do better next time."
That kind of drive and relentless ambition can make you a trying person to be around, but it can get results.
This leads to another complication: what is success anyway? Another truism we've come to learn is that true success is not the same as reaching the top of your profession. What does it gain a man to win the world of high finance but lose his friends and family? Hence the current rage for downsizing, whereby people give up on the rat race, not because they feel they can't win it, but because they don't think the price of victory is worth paying. A life is not well lived if the costs of hard work outweigh the benefits.
All this is true. And yet it doesn't quite add up, for would the world really be a better place if we all took sensible, moderate decisions? There are some good reasons why the pursuit of worldly success might sometimes be a noble quest.
First, as Aristotle recognised, the best lives are those that see us using our natural capacities to their full potential. For Aristotle, this meant a life of thought and contemplation. It is more credible, however, to suggest that we each of us have different "excellences" as the Greeks called them. If that is true, and there is something intrinsically rewarding about finding something you're good at and doing it as well as possible, then isn't dedicating yourself to developing your skills a worthwhile goal? Indeed, in the absence of an afterlife, this is arguably one of the few ways of finding meaning in life.
If this is what drives you, then it's quite natural that success in your field is going to be desirable, for this provides some sort of objective validation of the quality of your work. In different fields the reliability of this endorsement varies. In many individual sports, for example, the objective acts are indisputable. Tiger Woods is the best golf player in the world because he wins more tournaments than anyone else. If you're ranked 329, you can't pretend it's just because your talents are being overlooked.
In the arts, however, objective judgment is much less reliable. Fashion and luck play a large part in an artist being recognised, which is why it is always possible for a genius to die unrecognised. Hence the most successful artists and writers in terms of sales and fame may not be the most creatively successful. Fulfilling your potential needs a more subjective measure.
Yet even here, external success cannot be dismissed entirely. I write books, for example, and I want to get better as a writer. I know that I can do this even if my sales are poor and I win no awards. But do I want high sales and awards? Absolutely. Some of the reasons for this are instrumental: success earns you time and freedom to pursue the projects that really matter to you.
But again, even though imperfect, the external validation such worldly success provides does not count for nothing. Only a fool believes that they have written the best book of the year because a jury says they have. But to have won, or been short-listed, at least proves that other people who should know something about these things believe you're doing something right. And sales also show that readers, the people for whom books are for, agree.
The delusions of Ozymandias are to be avoided, but so are the delusions of people who believe they are good yet aren't. Like the hapless auditioners for The X Factor, it's no good telling ourselves we have the ability to be big: at some stage we have to confront the possibility that we're not, by testing our abilities against the real world. Even Epicurus, a world-renouncer if ever there was one, admitted that "The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it."
There is one final thing, however, that raises more profound questions. In the age of psychotherapy, we value being well adjusted and sane. The ideal we seek is to be "well balanced" with its suggestion that human perfection is a kind of Goldilocks phenomenon: being neither too cold nor too hot, but just right.
I would not want to glamorise mental instability for one moment. The romance of the tortured genius, teetering between sanity and madness, is obscene when we consider how real-life mental illness destroys lives.
Yet nor is it right to make the person of perfect balance the model for everyone. Some of the greatest things in this world have been created by people who refuse to "keep things in perspective" people with a passion for excellence in one field that is totally unjustifiable by calm, sensible, objective measures people who will carry on striving for some goal even when they have been knocked down time and again, and who are told repeatedly it can't be done.
The most successful people are often like this. It is just stupid to sit them down and recommend they have a better work-life balance because it's not balance they are after. It is criminal when people sacrifice their personal lives for careers that have little ultimate meaning for them, but it is not at all daft for people to prioritise work over other aspects of life if that is what really gets their motor running. One woman's perfect work-life balance is another woman's suburban nightmare.
The most successful people are those who have a passion for something they do well, a passion that is not rationally proportionate to the objective importance of their job. They get their success not just because they seek success in the abstract, but because their relentless desire to do better inevitably makes them rise in the regard of their professional peers. A few business people may be the shallow wealth-seekers of myth, but even most entrepreneurs care more than just about money.
Are these people the happiest, most well-adjusted members of our society? The question is facile, because it presupposes that nothing is ever more important than the comfort of being content and well balanced.
Success comes in many forms, and leading a good, decent life on your own terms can be the most rewarding kind of life of all. The hard-won and often fraught success of those who rise to the top is different, no more worthy, but certainly no less. —© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007
Labels: Self development