The Problem With ‘Success’

Why do we risk letting our original, creative selves fall by the wayside?

A person reaches out in the dark. Looking for success.
Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

At some point in our lives there comes a choice. Maybe it’s made consciously, maybe not; maybe early, maybe late. But at some point, we decide where we want to fit in. Who we want to become. What we want to do.

For some, this is a continuous evolution and one that develops over the course of a lifetime, as it should. But for others, this choice is taken just once — in that sliver of time when we leave school or university. Then before we know it, the imagined pressures of time, money, practicality, status, expectation have rushed us into picking something — anything — that sounds halfway reasonable.

From that point on, this choice becomes set in stone. Time passes and our decision solidifies in the habits and feedback-loops that affirm that this is who we are, now and forever. Not surprisingly, as our lives quickly become predictable and unchanging in this way, they dance to a mediocre, monotonous beat. The path narrows, and we plod along.

Comfort plays a role here, of course. It’s difficult for us to go against the pressure of the crowd and become our own individuals, when the world— as Emerson put it — “whips you with all its displeasure”.

But easy though it may be, drifting along with the crowd carries the huge risk that our intuitive, original and creative selves fall by the wayside.

And a society which heaps pressure on us to decide — who we are and what career we want to follow— before we even have the right experience and resources to make such decisions, does little to guard against this risk.

From a young age, we’re led around by experts and icons. These experts advise on the weather, the economy, our health, and they teach at our universities. Our icons lead from the top down in the fields of sports, politics, business, music. Take any field of work, and you’ll find an iconic figure — the more popular and commercially valuable the industry, the more of them there are. But together with experts, they give the impression that self-worth is linear — that we simply need to jump through enough hoops to ‘succeed’ or, if we’re placed in the bottom maths tier, stop trying to jump through hoops at all.

The image of the icon is so pervasive in modern western culture that it’s almost unnoticeable, a part of consumerism’s proverbial furniture. Consciously, we might think nothing of it. But what is suggested if an individual were to compare themselves to an expert? Compared to such a knowledgeable, talented or successful person, it’s likely anyone — let alone someone dropped into the bottom set of her math class — would feel a pang of inadequacy.

Faced with images of these people all the time, the implied comparison is there, as is the conclusion: we are not good enough.

But strip back the illusion, even just a little, and this comparison has no grounds. Sure, you’re looking at another human being, but that aside, what similarities are there? Do you have a lifelong passion for medicine, or the weather, or golf? Are you that middle-aged, career-primed professional? No.

A couple of personality traits and the fact of your common humanity aside, your lives are different. And rightly so. You’re a different person, with a different set of experiences and memories that characterise your response to the world around you.

But the comparison with the ideal careers on — promoted by grading systems and exams through school, by all number of clever marketing ploys and social media distortions through life — and the potential damage to self-worth continues.

Perfectly capable people are turned away from beginning things because they ‘don’t know enough’: the first novel is never written because the budding young talent isn’t an ‘expert’ on writing, the student drops all but the books because well, since she decided to read Law, she’ll never be a dancer, and so on.

As our faces are pointed towards the stars of society, our own reality is taught to anchor itself to the earth. Too often, we learn to discard the things we find enjoyable because we feel it’s not possible to be good, or good enough, at them. And in place of this loss, we strive for an ideal that is unattainably perfect, different to ourselves and founded on the empty external drivers of status and wealth.

We can all do better. Our education can be more holistic, more humane; our social media less insidious; our environments more supportive. Let’s not forget it.

Fresh off a philosophy degree, I now write about sanity, psychology and society.