Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The definition of success

I’ve been thinking about the definition of success lately. It’s a subject that has always interested me, and then a friend loaned me the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. He is the author of the earlier books The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I am nearly finished with the book and I have to say it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. The author has a way of drawing you into his world; he is a good storyteller, and that makes him a good author. He is also a best-selling author, in other words, a successful author, and I have to wonder as he wrote this book, if he wasn’t wondering a bit about what made him so successful. His books fill a void—call it the void of interesting heretofore unknown facts that become wildly-interesting stories—possibly because he weaves those facts into a coherent story. He sees synergies and connections in those facts that others don’t see. I’d call him a true researcher because of his intelligence, curiosity and enthusiasm for the subjects he studies and writes about. His books are often placed in the genre ‘psychology’. I guess that’s as good a genre as any, but this book is not a self-help book. It is an exploratory philosophical book about what makes successful people successful; there are no 10 steps to follow on the path to success, no guarantees for success.

He defines outliers as people ‘who do things that are out of the ordinary’. In statistics, outliers are usually the data points that are outside other values in a set of data—values that are often far away from the others, and statisticians often don’t like outliers. They would in fact prefer that they were not there, because their existence can mess up an otherwise perfectly good data set. So statisticians have ways of dealing with outliers. Gladwell has decided to focus on them, because they are the people who lie outside the norm. I won’t spoil the book for you, but his premise is that no successful person is ‘self-made’. We hang on to that myth though as though our life depended on it. If I could sum up his view, it would be that successful people achieved their success due to a combination of factors: intelligence; circumstances (family history and social standing); opportunities that were seized, not ignored; happenstance (being in the right place at the right time--also in a historical perspective); and of course hard work (the ten thousand hour rule). We like to think that successful people were ‘discovered’ and that on the basis of one song or one story that they became successful. But that’s not the case, and he demolishes that view very elegantly.

I’ve thought a lot about success during the past year with all the tumult at my workplace. Westernized society’s standard definition of success is clear—top jobs, large salaries, and power— often involving rags-to-riches stories or self-made man/woman stories. But when I look at my own workplace, one thing is completely clear. None of the people who made it to the top and who are successful in the standard sense made it without help. They had support networks, people rooting for them, mentors, call it what you will. They had political connections--they did not make it alone. And those who think that they did are living in a fantasy world. This does not negate the fact that they are intelligent, worthy of their success, have worked hard, and have a lot to offer. It simply says that they also had crucial help at a point when the opportunities for them to move up presented themselves (their personal windows of opportunity). If they were not aware of the opportunities, they had mentors who showed them that they were there. Mentors are important. I would venture to say that mentors are important at all ages. It is not just the young who need them, although they need them perhaps the most. But older people in the workplace need them too. They need impartial, unbiased, objective people with whom to discuss their careers and workplace situations. If you have never had them, you don’t know what you’ve missed until you hit the glass ceiling or find that your career path is moving laterally, not upward. You don’t know that you’ve made critical mistakes until it’s too late. Mentors might have been able to redirect your thoughts or plans. But of course this presupposes that you buy into the standard definition of success—that you are successful if you have a top job, earn a lot of money, or have a lot of power. It’s easy to see why most people want this type of success. It makes living in our society much easier. If you are wealthy, you command respect that poorer people don’t get. And if you think this is not true, think about the last time poor people were really ‘listened’ to, anywhere on the planet. For every Mother Teresa in the world, there are millions of poor people who command no respect.

There is nothing wrong with the standard definition of success. It’s nice to be able to have enough money to do the things you want, to live your life comfortably, to have some ‘say’ in what goes on at your workplace. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is only when you have achieved some measure of standard success that you are in a position to help others—as a mentor or as a benefactor. But still, I wonder if successful people are happy. I’m guessing that many of them are—because they have reached the top in their chosen field, and that by itself must give them a sense of satisfaction or completion. It’s like a sports star who has won his or her competition—that feeling of winning. But of course once at the top, you can never really rest. You must keep going. There are always others waiting in the wings to replace you. There are also unhappy successful people, and they interest me, perhaps more than the happy ones. I wonder why they are unhappy if they’ve achieved everything they wanted to achieve in their work life. The answer has to be that work life alone is not the be-all and the end-all of life. If you don’t have a good personal life—family and friends who see you through the good and the bad times, you don’t have much. I’ve watched successful men in my workplace get old, retire, and lose their status and power. Some of them tackled it well; others did not. I wonder if those who tackled it well were those with a good family life. Because if workplace success is the only way you define your life, you are bound to be unhappy. And there are the other scenarios that lead to unhappiness that are out of your control. There are unfortunately just as many unhappy twists of fates in the workplace as there are happy ones; I have seen bad things happen to good people who were successful in the standard sense. They were at the top one day and at the bottom the next. Not literally of course, but it seems that way. What did they do wrong? Did they do anything wrong? Is this just how workplace life is? Do you need to learn to roll with the punches as a successful person? Are successful people good at doing this? These are all interesting questions. In any case, the vagaries and mystery of success will keep researchers and writers preoccupied for years to come. 

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