Monday, April 14, 2014

Defining Success

I occasionally have "light bulb" moments when taking our dog, Bubba for a walk, especially when the walks last 45 minutes or longer.   It was during a recent walk that the idea of a blog about success occurred to me.   I decided to start with a quick google to obtain some published definitions.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as "the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame". has a few listed definitions, the first two being:
1.  the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's   goals.
2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Finally, Wictionary also lists two main definitions:
  1. The achievement of one's aim or goal
     2. (business) financial profitability.

As I examine these offerings, I am struck by the fact that success seems to be determined as much by others as by one's self, (respect, fame, wealth), and is more often indicated by some type of monetary achievement (wealth, financial profitability). 

In a past blog, perhaps more than one, I stated that I consider myself to be a writer, despite knowing that I do not make a living as a writer, and do not have a very large audience.  Applying the above definitions to my assertion, it would seem clear that I could not claim to be a success as a writer without achieving some modicum of respect or wealth visa-vie my writing.  At this point, then, I do not ever expect to be a success as defined in that way, yet I still post my thoughts with a very specific goal in mind; to write something, someday, that will evoke a strong emotional or spiritual reaction in my readers.  And, based on some feedback that I have received over the last four years, I have accomplished that goal a few times.  So, while still requiring the viewpoint of others to attain success, I feel there have been a few moments when I have succeeded despite a lack of widespread fame, respect or wealth.

I would bet that a small percentage of the population would deem themselves a success in life.  They gauge this belief on the unrealized dreams of their youth, the undeveloped talent they couldn't pursue, the humdrum nature of the job in which they are employed, the average home in the average neighborhood with their average, everyday friends and family; in other words, their lack of fame and wealth. 

Is it a stretch then to wonder why there are so many who "work for the weekend", drink a bit too much, have trouble sleeping at night, overuse and abuse the fruits of the pharmacology industry, struggle with their personal relationships, are unhappy?  Would the perception of personal success help alleviate some of these problems?

My wife recently baked some cupcakes for her workplace to help raise money for a local charity.  The cupcakes were from a white cake mix with blue icing made from scratch.  She sprinkled some green-dyed coconut flakes on top for grass, placed a few small chocolate eggs on each surrounding a yellow peep placed lovingly in the middle.  Adorable right?  Of course, they all sold quickly.  And the few I brought to work were greeted with oohs and aahs.  Is that not a success?  Does she even realize how many smiles and positive emotions those cupcakes created?  Those few people who purchased and shared those few dozen cupcakes would undoubtedly consider them a success and wish they could have baked such treasures.   Strangely though, their perception is not perfectly in line with my wife's.  She does not attach the same result, the same perception of success in regards to those "peep" cupcakes as those who devoured them.

History is filled with stories of seemingly successful people who did not perceive their own success.  Who considered themselves failures even.  It seems clear then, that success may be apparent to others but only matters if the person acknowledges it as well.

If it is not possible for everyone to be a success, does that mean that we can't experience success?  Have a "favorable or prosperous termination of attempt or endeavor; the accomplishment of one's goal."  Is the athlete who breaks all the records the only success, or is every athlete who accomplished something on the field, and who generated a memory in a fan who will always remember that day, a success?  Are only the parents of noble prize winners or TV stars a success, or are all parents who raise their children to be productive, compassionate members of society a success as well?  Are only those who captain great multi-national companies or broker vast financial deals a success, or are the people who, to the best of their ability, cook and serve our meals, patrol our streets, take care of our children in the our daycares and schools, do the work that makes all businesses run properly, also a success?

Finally, assuming it takes outside input to help us believe in our success, do our institutions take the lead in providing that positive feedback?  Does our religion emphasize the good in people or  demonize others to make us feel good about ourselves?  Do our political parties point out the good qualities of all Americans or denounce those on the other side as evil?  Do our employers treat us as they would their own families, or jettison us as soon as the profit margin dictates?  Do our friends and family support us despite our flaws, or take no pains in revealing our foibles to the highest bidder?

Success then, to me, is a two part equation.  An uplifting environment where encouragement, constructive criticism and compassion rule the day, and an inner belief that we are basically good and able to accomplish our goals.  In the classic chicken or the egg question, I am not sure which comes first, so perhaps we should set our sights on both.         

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