The Path to Success
Commonplace Newsletter #97
The questions we ask will determine the answers we are given. This is a simple point, obvious even, but like all simple and obvious things it is not thought about often enough or given the serious consideration it deserves. Which is why we are here.
Any trial lawyer (or barrister here in the UK) worth their fee knows that the way you frame a question is truly the name of the game, whether in cross examination or in life more generally. In framing questions a certain way, by chaining them together in a given pattern someone can be led down a particular route, whether this be the Yes Ladder of sales or along a seemingly benign path that leads the accused to perjure themselves or make an admission against their self-interest.
And so it is with the idea of success. When it comes to this word, this weighty topic- we have been instilled to ask by default only ‘How do I become successful?’ but not ‘What is success?’ and certainly not ‘Why should I bother pursing success?’ or even ‘Is it in my interest to pursue success as it is presented to me?’
Curious, isn’t it? The idea of being a success, or being successful are seen as being such intrinsic, obvious, self-evident, self-justifying good traits that even poking at this a little, even giving it a good-natured prod to see what happens seems idiotic and futile if not somehow blasphemous. Success has become a virtue.
But as the saying goes ‘you only take flak when you are over the target’ which is how I know that questioning this whole notion- looking at the why, rather than assuming a yes and simply considering the how- is a worthwhile pursuit. Or at least that’s my hope. Let’s see what happens.
Success isn’t what it used to be. In its Renaissance origin the term success meant something like ‘outcome’ and so it was perfectly possible to have a good success or a bad success. The result from a success could be either positive or negative. And whichever way it turned out a success was something you had, something you experienced. It was not something you were or could become in the same way that it is impossible to become a divorce or to become a victory in battle. You couldn’t become successful.
With the modern linguistic (d)evolution of the word success we have lost this entire layer of nuance and with it a substrate of understanding and wisdom. If- as is the case now- a success can only mean a positive thing then it has ceased to be an event and it has instead become a judgement. And herein lies the problem. If a success can only mean a positive then it stops being a kind of map and it instead becomes solely a destination, a beacon, an end point. It doesn’t teach us much of anything and it simply becomes a thing that is desirable and powerfully mimetically desirable at that.
If it is inherently and only a positive then those who have success become those who are success, or as we now say successful. If you want to become successful you do what those who already have success do. You model them, you copy their outward manifestations of success which in contemporary times have coalesced to clear, if not blindingly obvious, signifiers- such as cars, watches, documented-via-social-media holidays and other gleaming indicators of economic wealth. But there is a sleight of hand here. If success is something that you are then it becomes linked with other existential desirables, with other things that we want to be. In short success becomes a synonym for happiness. And that, as you may have already experienced in life, is quite often simply not the case at all.
I’m sure we all know someone who is unhappily successful. I suspect many of us have been that person, have gone through that journey. Indeed you may still be going through it. And this journey only ends when the faulty causality that success equals happiness, or rather that more success always equals more happiness, is finally broken. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not talking about renunciation here, about accepting defeat and giving in, I am talking about reframing the desire for success, the quest for it into something more related to its etymological origins.
If a success reverts back to being an outcome alone then you achieve success by taking shots as opposed to only by scoring goals. It all becomes feedback as opposed to inherent indicators of worth. And so those outward trappings of what we call success, those things that can so often weigh us down and encumber us are no longer necessary. When you are immersed in doing something, you don’t bother signalling that you are doing it because you are far too busy doing it.
And so success becomes a process once again, a map as opposed to a particular prescribed path. With this worldview in place our whole lives can now be viewed as a multi-layered succession of events, some of which have a circular momentum, and some of which we have little or no control over. We move away from success in our narrow contemporary sense towards a succession of outcomes and possibilities.
In this conception of things success becomes uncoupled from status. The ideology of success is circumvented, ideology being, as Rene Girard once defined as ‘the idea that everything is either good or bad.’ From what I can see it is that (often) thoughtless drive to acquire ever more success that leads people to existential ruin in the end.
A life can only ever be truly mislived and can ever truly be a failure, if we die with deep regrets, if you die thinking that you totally blew it. And from what I have been told by someone close who spent years working in end-of-life care- is that the only thing that people dwell on and regret (or conversely are contented with) at the very end are the state of their relationships and how they have managed them. They wished they had spent more time and energy on those they loved and less time chasing after the approval of others (whether professionally or personally) who did not reciprocate, and this same concern crosses age social class and ethnic backgrounds and yes, it occurs regardless of the individual’s measure of worldly success.
These things then are what matter and they have nothing to do with ‘success’ as we have been presented with it. In fact the chasing of success can be a real impediment to the cultivation of these vital relationships. It can be the catalyst and incubator of deathbed regret. This sentiment is captured aptly in the second verse of The Replacements song Bastards of Young:
The ones who love us best are the one’s we’ll lay to rest/
And visit their graves on holidays at best/
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please…
No matter what your status is, that, I believe, is what true failure looks like. It’s something to think about as you are climbing the prescribed ladder of conventional success.
I’m not saying don’t dream or don’t attempt to excel at things. Make attempts, take shots, (take more shots- rack up more of both the good successes and the bad successes in that Renaissance sense) but remember that in the end it all comes down to who we have helped along the way and the relationships we have built rather than the trophies we have gained.
Until next time,
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This is a sales tactic whereby you ask the prospect a series of softball questions that you know they will say yes to in the lead up to in the end getting them to say yes to buying what it is that you are selling.
I picked up this quote from Luke Burgis’ book Wanting which is an excellent and accessible exploration of success, desire, status and how our actions are not as independent and self-willed as we like to tell ourselves they are.
I found this really interesting. In my field, there are 'gurus' who are always on the move, earning thousands in speaking fees, and I look at them and think: they never see their loved ones, they're always in a different hotel room (which all look the same no matter where in the world you happen to be), and they're probably knackered all the time. It's a strange definition of success.
I remember on Dragons Den once, Peter Jones visited the founder of Pimlico Plumbers, who has his own swimming pool etc. Jones was trying to get him to scale up his business so that there would be lots of Pimlico Plumbers all over the place, and the reply was something along the lines of "Why? I've got enough; there's only one of me!". Peter Jones was completely flummoxed!
Also, what you said about end of life. I recall once offering to stay behind at work until whatever time they threw me out in order to get something finished, and my line manager said to me "Terry, nobody on their deathbed ever said they wished they'd spent more time in the office. Go home!" So true!
Love this -- "in the end it all comes down to who we have helped along the way and the relationships we have built rather than the trophies we have gained."