Monday, February 13, 2012

What is Success? 5 Toxic Myths

Boy was it disappointing to discover that my phone company was doing me wrong. I hope that folks have found my story informative and helpful. It's the kind of thing that I hate doing, yet corporate personhood aside, I believe that we have a duty to call out bad behavior in business, just like we must act to maintain healthy boundaries with other people. So now I'm gonna grab my cultural warrior coat.

In sweeping up all the mirrors shards, I had the opportunity to reflect on why the folks that run AT&T would chose such a course for their business. Perhaps they believe that if they increase profits, they will win the wealth, freedom and respect that will finally make them successful. But there is a big big problem here. Do you see it?

Success...what is it really? Are you sure you know? Since Charles Dickens first wrote Great Expectations it has become a common theme that the things we think mark success don't look so great when we finally see them up close. Funny though. Despite this theme coming up countless time since, even in Adam Sandler movies, we have continued to chase the same illusions only to find the same disappointment and wonder what went wrong.

I believe we need a new definition for success, and we need one bad.  But before we get there let's put the troublemakers to bed once and for all.

1) Success is something you can buy. What is the American Dream these days? Big house, fancy car, white picket fence with a few kids and a dog? Notice something here? These are all things that you own. But wait! I hear some folks thinking...the rest might be true, but you don't own your kids. Well, I personally don't think so, but if the results of a cursory web search are any gauge of what people are thinking there does seem to be some confusion on this point. IMO that's the problem right there. When we gauge success by what we own we want to expand the definition of ownership as far as possible. For some people this will include their spouses, their kids and whomever else they can pull into their orbit. This is bad, because it is this kind of thinking that leads to situations like Josh Powell murdering his sons. What should really be troubling is this type of narcissism is on the rise. Still think we should judge our success by what we possess?

2) Success is a place that you can get to. Like the top of a mountain, or the 1000 Places To See Before You Die or that partnership, or the podium where you get to collect your big award or box seats seats at a ball game or first class instead of coach. Status or the equivalent experience has long been a cherished goal of the ambitious. It is closely tied with material success, and in the end about as hollow. When we gauge success by prestige and perks we become isolationist. It's all out Highlander, 'There can be only one!' Which brings me too...

3) Success is winning.  Not long ago HBO made a documentary about the legendary rivalry between tennis stars John McEnroe and Bj√∂rn Borg. Not only is it an entertaining look into a unique point of sports history, but it's a hugely revealing window on the emptiness of winning, and how each of them discovered this same truth only after watching their lives crash and burn. Sure winning can be good, and we need to have some competition to stay healthy overall. But when winning becomes the yardstick by which we judge success then we cannot tolerate failure. There are problems with that, the biggest being that it dooms us to a never-ending cycle of malignant stagnation. Whose up for watching their world crash and burn?

4) Success is about feeling good. We all want to feel good of course, and most of the things above do seem to do just that, at least up until they don't. That's a problem. When we define success as feeling good, we collapse in times of hardship. Even the luckiest among us is going to face challenges in life. Heart break, loss, illness, our secret sex tape being publicly released, none of these things feel good. It's also painful to take a stand. When folks define success as feeling good, not only will they shy away from righting a troubling wrong, but they are also at serious risk for addiction. If you are doing it right, life is going to hurt sometimes.

5) Success makes you better than the rest. The end result of defining success thus is that once a person 'arrives' they sink into the abyss of grandiose thought. Naomi Campbell, Russell Crowe, Alec Baldwin, and countless others represent the narcissistic upshot of this kind of 'success'. But what kind of life is that? When you succumb to narcissism you can't give love, can't receive love, can't feel love, yup just like Voldemort. It's no wonder that the percentage of psychopaths in the US is a whopping 4%. That is one in 25 people! Even more disturbing is that this figure is on the rise too. From The Sociopath Next Door - by Martha Stout...

Apparently, cultural influences play a very important role in the development (or not) of sociopathy in any given population. Few people would disagree that, from the Wild West of the past to the corporate outlaws of the present, American society seems to allow and even encourage me-first attitudes devoted to the pursuit of domination. Robert Hare writes that he believes "our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist -- traits such as impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse." 

In the end success is one of those things that we each must define for ourselves, and in so doing we will define our culture. However if we don't question what we have been given, what we believe success to be, we are doomed to fall back on the ideals our culture has provided us. But something is rotten here! Our American dream has become the cliched nightmare. We need a new vision. We must do better than an image of success that breeds narcissism and psychopathy, and I believe we can do better. So what do you think? What does success look like to you?

Photo courtesy of Mattox.

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