25. Essay: On Success I

An idea of success informs our understanding of society. But how do we measure success, if it is something that we want to be measured in the first place. Money is an obvious measurement that is used in the modern age. An external measurement that strips away any human element of improvement or understanding and focuses on a number that can go up and down depending on the circumstances. One’s net worth. The worth of someone of everything you own, tangible and intangible. Net worth is an easy measure of success because we can measure it and be satisfied if it goes up, or disappointed if it goes down. But is success something you arrive at once, something you maintain, or something you become? Is it a state or a becoming, a process that has to be maintained. Are the very rich still successful if they lose everything after many years? Can we speak of a period of success and a period of decline? But if success is something entirely external to the person, that is the money or net worth of a person, can we say that a person who acquires this or that amount is successful?


For other measures of success, we can, for example speak of success in terms of religious followers. The degree in which a region followed the Christian faith for example is a form of success. A successful community is a pious one, and its leaders those who were most pious. In business or religion, we can speak of success in this way perhaps but what about a successful musician, is it someone who plays for many people and is famous the world over or someone who has mastered their craft regardless of fame and rewards. But do we say that a master of something without an audience is successful? Or would we say that they are wasting their time pursuing something that did not bear any fruit. We can assume that there is a relation between mastery and success but let us leave that aside for the moment. In a similar fashion is a successful cook someone who cooks great dishes even if they are the only one who eats them. These are internal measures of success which are difficult to mulch into numbers as we like to do in the computer age. We cannot put a number on an interpretation, or a dish despite our best efforts to do so. This is a type of success that cannot be taken away from a person. Barring any incidents one will remain a great cook or musician, and will even improve more over time. This is internal success and one can become successful according to their own idea of success whether it is cooking a complicated dish, painting something or playing a music piece.


Based on these scenarios we can distinguish two types of success; internal and external. The first, internal success is based on managing oneself, one’s skills, nature and so on, and the second based on managing external systems. External systems are the systems that we need to navigate in order to become successful, and one in which we have little control over; the market, the school; the bureaucracy, and so on. These systems exist before our birth and will continue to do so after our death. How we adapt to these systems and work with them, through them, against them, will determine the degree of external rewards we gain which we classify as success. This can be the number of souls won, money (wealth) accrued, territory claimed, medals accumulated, diseases cured and so on.

We can further distinguish these two types into the idea of success which follows from our own nature and the idea of success that is bestowed on us. These share similarities with the external and internal ideas of success. For the accumulation of wealth, say we accrue a great amount where many would say we are rich, and we are discussed as such in society, listed in magazines as wealthy and so on. We would qualify as having an external type of success, as well success that is bestowed, or granted on us by others. We however might feel that this success is not enough, or rather that we are not successful at all. We still say that we should not rest on our laurels as there is much more that needs doing. Success, or admitting success to oneself implies a finality. What is there to achieve after success after all? Is it perfection? But how is this achieved if the success we achieve is an external one in which there is always more to accumulate or acquire. But then many would argue that there is a difference between being successful and accruing successes. Mastering a music piece is a personal, small form of success that might not be comparable to founding a country or winning a noble prize. However, we are now measuring internal success by external measures. Rather we should look at each internal success in its own terms, winning a noble prize or cooking a particular dish might create similar feelings of success for a person in particular circumstances despite vast differences in external evaluation.


This leads to the matter of how we gauge external success. External success can only be measured through comparison with others, or with a comparison to the relation to the thing we wish to achieve. If it is medals, we can look at the number of medals handed out, the amount of number one positions, ranking and so on. If it is money, then we cannot measure the total amount of money in the world as this is practically infinite, which is why we compare between those who have money. Another method would be to compare it to ourselves across time, I started with 0, or this amount and now I have this amount. But how do we know whether this amounts to a success without referring to others? Is it possible to eliminate the environment when we deal with the comparison of external success? Of course, this depends on the item that one is measuring by. If it is currency, then success is never ending as one must always accumulate more if one compares across time, to have more than one had before. If it measured by converted souls, then perhaps a target can be reached, a certain region to be converted, or for medals, certain medals to be won, records to be set. This is where external and internal goals can overlap as one influences the other. Success as owning one’s own house can be both an internal and external goal that is limited. Whether you own 1 house or 10 houses the result is the same, of course one can compare size, land and so on but this does not concern us here. External and internal success can overlap and do often do so. To pursue and attain beauty is both a form of internal success and one informed by external notions of success as, even in the most extreme cases we cannot separate ourselves from the community we are accustomed to. But as has been made apparent external and external success are vastly different. Now all that rests us to do is to discuss between success that is dependent on accumulation and success that is dependent on improvement. A topic for another time.

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