Reflections on success: defining success

Part 1/3 of remarks made at UCT Young Women Professionals Dinner

I have been asked to give a talk based on today’s theme – Setting yourself up for success. Much has been written on the subject of success. Industries have developed around the pursuit of success. These include the secular self-help industry, the prosperity theology movement (perhaps not completely an industry) and the business education sector.

As an MBA student, I was exposed to various theories, frameworks and tools that were meant to equip one to become a successful professional or business person. But even before the managerial age, philosophers grappled with the notion of what the good life entails. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher wrote quite eloquently about the shortness of life and offered some suggestions on how to optimise the limited time that we have. We shall return to him shortly.

Yet in spite of all this steady output over the years, there is no clear definition of success. For some, the signifiers of success are money and fame.  Others see it in an integrated life, with equal emphasis on career, family and spirituality. There are also those who argue that success is to be found exclusively in spiritual enlightenment. We all have different ideas of success and different metrics to measure it.  It seems that the only take-away on this matter is that each of us has to define our own vision of what it means.

As Seneca put it: “The condition of all who are engrossed is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labour at engrossments that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world – loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.”

Finding one’s unique path is difficult given the bounded nature of our lives. Our vision of success is constrained by the resources at our disposal, the role models around us, the expectations of loved ones and the norms of community. These variables may be soft or hard constraints, but they exist nonetheless.  Often they have to be actively overcome in order for an authentic vision of success to emerge.

It goes without saying that like any other major issue of human concern, the question of success has also been thrashed out by creative writers. Lately, I have been revisiting some of the plays I read in high school. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is very much about success in a rapidly evolving world. Set during a time when the United States was sealing its fate as a consumer society, it presents us with a protagonist who is desperate for success, but is unable to achieve it in the manner in which he would like. Willie Loman is a man who enjoys working with his hands, and in community with others, but his career is that of a travelling salesman who measures his output in appointments secured and sales made. It is a macho, competitive and impersonal world that he is not able to thrive in. Yet he refuses to see this and his pathetic self-delusion poisons his relationship with his family. His sons crumble under the weight of his deferred dreams, which he expects them to actualise.

After he dies in what looks like a suicide, his son Biff accuses him of having the “wrong dreams. All, all wrong”. Because he never knew who he was, Biff explains. He then tries to lure his brother from city life, from office life. But Happy will not hear it: “I’m staying right in this city, and I’m gonna beat this racket…I’m gonna show you and everybody that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.”

How horrific it sounds, for someone to have chased the wrong dream. And, if that was the wrong dream for Willie Loman; how tragic it is for his son to think that there is only one kind of legitimate dream worth pursuit. This is an area of difficulty for modern women too. If for Happy the only dream is to come out as the number one man, a dream where only person can win (or maybe the 1 percent for society as a whole), for modern women the ultimate dream has been defined as something called ‘having it all’.

That, having it all, sounds like the recipe for setting yourself up for failure. So as a first point, I would say that in setting yourself up for success, you have to define the right dream. One that’s right for you and also for your community. That is a long journey, because it entails silencing the media, your family, your friends and your peers so that you are able to work out what your purpose is, what gives you energy, what matters to you…

Then you have to work out your methods. Aristophanes tells a very interesting tale in Lysistrata, written around 411 BCE. After years of war, the women of Greece and its colonies are weary of it and long for peace. The women reach out to one another across tribal lines, they devise a strategy, they execute the strategy and by the end of the play there is a peace settlement on the table. This sounds great until as a feminist I have to come to terms with the fact that they achieved this through a cookie strike. They kept the cookies in the cookie jar, as Steve Harvey would put it.

The women actually had a two-pronged strategy – one was to deny their husbands companionship, the other was to stage a sit-in at the treasury in the Acropolis to starve the war effort of funds. Aristophanes, perhaps because he is a male writer, focuses entirely on the men’s sexual deprivation. Those were desperate times indeed, but it’s clear that only one prong of that strategy could be thought of as honourable and sustainable. Yet if we follow Aristophanes’ account, it was the other prong, the manipulative and distasteful strategy, which may have delivered a speedy resolution.

We live in a society that offers multiple routes to success; at least in its basic and crude sense. For a long time, this economy was built on exploitation and exclusion; monopolisation and corruption. These tendencies still continue as the work of the Competition Commission has shown. So this is the other big question of success: how you set about achieving it and the trade-offs that you make.

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