I thought it wasn't; but then I had a brief facebook exchange with a good friend, who adroitly pointed out that the success he achieved at winning the local pub ‘millionaire’ quiz was very quantifiable, especially the answer to question 15 which was ‘how many novels did Anthony Trollope write?’*
And it’s true- getting the answer counts as a success. We all have built in such notions of ‘public’ success- that probably starts with school and university exam results and all the other nonsense of the job world (it’s interesting that exams as a concept are only a few centuries old- isn’t it amazing that the Greek, Roman and Elizabethan conquest of the world was managed without a single phd?). I digress. Once we venture out of the cocoon of academia or the corporate bubble, we get out into the murky but realer world where we have to ask: does winning the pub quiz ‘beat’ sailing around the world even if the pub winner feels like a hero and the sailor doesn’t?
Because it seems to me that ‘success’ is pretty pointless unless it engenders happiness in the succeeder. If it simply bumps you up a grade in the eye of the public then what’s the point?
We all need attention but making the attention you get hard to get seems perverse. People saying you are great, money, applause- all that is very nice, but if the only way you can get it is to climb Everest in your underpants then it seems inefficient- especially when you can get the same applause from winning the pub quiz.
I have a young friend who justifies doing work for which he doesn’t get paid as ‘looking good on the CV’- and this is a good idea, it’s how he motivates himself. When I was doing aikido and had to face something grueling I used to tell myself that if I wrote a book this would be good material. I guess this is a way of converting something to a higher ‘success’ value by realizing that external success can cause internal success-happiness-feelings.
But who hasn’t berated themselves from time to time for not having been a ‘success’? It seems we are really keen to use this word, and cause ourselves and others grief with it, without actually examining what it really means.
The external part of success is what everyone agrees on- more or less: winning the competition, making X million dollars, writing the blockbuster. But the internal part, the ‘success feeling’ is more obscure.
One friend of mine has a very ordinary job, hobby, wife and children- yet everything he does is couched in terms of huge and lasting success- and he is a happy man. He sells his boat for more than he bought it- you’d think he had just won the lottery. His son gets into a very ordinary university- he’s produced a genius. Contrast this with a millionaire entrepeneur I mentioned in another article who had a distinguished war record, had invented and patented several new products, made several million when that was a lot of money, drove a Bentley with a personalized number plate- and yet thought of himself as a ‘failure’.
There must be a way of sidestepping this mental morass without getting sucked in, without having to take sides and either be ‘for success’ or ‘against it.’
A friend once advised me: ‘if you’re going to self-publicise, self publicise- but don’t publicise the fact that you aren’t self-publicising’. There’s something in this. Don’t downplay your own successes. We shouldn’t have to shy away from success just because public conceptions and media estimates of success are crude.
How much success does a man need?
Perhaps the gravest error is believing that success is a person rather than a particular achievement. It would be less confusing if it was seen as grammatically incorrect to state ‘he or she is a success.’ Instead people would be coerced into saying he succeeded at that, she succeeded at that. That would make it easier.
But we’re stuck with the realer world.
Maybe there’s another way of looking at this. Author Christopher Ross suggested to me that the basic unit of activity was the success pay-off. A success pay-off is the burst of inner energy you get when something you do succeeds. Now, the trick is, to design your life so that you maximize the success pay-offs. Make your to-do list ten items long, do them all and you get the pay-off. Make it twelve and fail on one- and you get no pay-off- even though your external ‘success’ rate was higher.
The millionaire probably saw anything less than ten million as a failure. My boat selling friend sees making twenty quid a success. One is happy the other isn’t.
But is one deluded?
That’s the nub. And the second nub is: if we settle for ‘lesser definitions of success’ we won’t be driven on to succeed at bigger things.
But a desire for success is a pretty blunt motivator. Pretty dull and rough and injurious to mental health. ‘Success’, as in some vague conception of a ‘better inner state than I now have, which will be miraculously provided when I win the big prize’, never occurs.
I thought that after I had published a book, won a prize, made money writing I would feel different inside. Of course I didn’t. I say ‘of course’ because if you had questioned me BEFORE I would have denied that I was aiming to feel different. It was only afterwards when I felt a bit flat and ordinary did it come home that I had been expecting some kind of existential salvation, a shift to a higher plane, as a result of ‘success’. This superstition lurks in our culture of fame and celebrity. Kids sense it- which is why so many answer that they don’t care what they do when they grow up as long as they are famous.
But if ‘success’ won’t make you feel any different why aim for it? Because success pay-offs provide the nutritive energy we need for living. And if you start too low (a day’s success being to buy a stamp at the post office- believe me I have been there) -all you need to do is set yourself a rising scale. If you achieve ten things today easily on your to-do list aim for twelve tomorrow, if you wrote 500 words easily try for 1000.
The pleasure you feel at such successes are the same as any success engendered pleasure- such as winning the pub quiz- as long as you heartfully enjoy it and don’t let your mental critic knock it and mutter ‘it’s nothing’.
We live in a ‘success’ oriented society. People think that the luck of ‘winners’ will rub off on them. We touch the clothes of the successful just as in previous more religious ages people visited shrines. Famous (in the Hello Magazine sense) people often report that when they are interviewed knick knacks go missing- an ashtray, a comb, even a packet of cigarettes. Knick knacks nicked to leverage luck.
This gets back, kind of, to my comments on writing. A goal is a target expressed in numbers. Success is vague and useless. You have to quantify what you consider counts as a success. You have to set up a success pay-off situation with numbers as your guide. Instead of hoping your book, music, film or product is a ‘success’ quantify what would count in your eyes as a success. Selling 5000 copies? 2000? Obviously you are going to have to balance unbridled optimism against realism and experience- but remember, you can always up the numbers next time. There is no need to be in a hurry.