“Success Doesn’t (Need to) Suck”

A Three Part Series Dedicated to Exploring the New Meaning of Success

Part I: What is Success?

Over a brief holiday break from work, I received an email from Rolling Stone magazine with a series of “classic” article links; one intrigued me: it was a 1994 article titled “Success Doesn’t Suck,” about the musician Kurt Cobain. The thrust of the article is that the singer had only recently begun to realize that the success he had achieved in music – which included sales of millions of albums and worldwide fame – wasn’t bad.

How did something so potentially positive become laden with so much baggage?

After reflecting on this, I decided that we have a very narrow traditional definition of success rooted in three conditions:

  1. We are taught to strive for a narrow vision of success from a young age.
  2. We are taught that achievement of success is the result of a long, hard, lifetime of struggle.
  3. We are taught that success is an end, not a beginning.

One: It seems that (at least in the U.S.), we are “taught” through popular culture to revere versions of success that are very narrow in scope: CEOs, certain Politicians, celebrities, and people who have risen to positions of power in the public sphere. These people are repeatedly called “successful.” And in many narratives, success is further refined to apply only to CEOs and celebrities; public sphere success often carries the caveat that the protagonist “sacrificed” in some way for the common good. Particularly with SEC employees, they are written about in terms of the opportunities they passed up in the private sector (i.e., Wall Street).

When the sites are set at these levels, a precipitous fall is bound to accompany success, because no one can actually live up to that construction. And, realistically, most will never achieve this level of “success” in material terms (e.g., money, power).

Two: Building from the first, the traditional narrative of success emphasizes the struggles it takes to get there (e.g., long hours at work, years of difficult schooling). While it certainly takes hard work to be successful, the meta-narrative often glosses over the more nefarious tradeoffs one must make; regardless of our innate potential, most of us don’t have the stomach for this type of achievement (for more on these tradeoffs, I recommend that you Google “Is there life after work?” by former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan).

Three: Finally, traditional images of success focus on ends, not beginnings. This image of success is that it is the capstone of a lifetime of achievement, which means that no one under the age of say, 60, is truly successful. By that definition – tech entrepreneurs and rock musicians aside – success is presented as a swan song.

If this is what success is – a lifetime journey filled with onerous challenges, with no guaranteed pot of gold – then it makes sense to me that many of us probably assume we aren’t successful. And that mindset is a real loss to our communities, as I’ll explore in Parts II & III.

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