Well, this comes in the wake of my most important client giving me their month’s notice (that the other writers in the team have also received, so it’s not just me), so this is a bit weird, but very timely.
So if you hadn’t noticed, I’m going through a major period of rethinking my values and my goals in life. And one thing that has bothered me since my epiphany is an obsession I see a lot around me: that of success.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming successful people or people who want to succeed. I’m just tired of feeling like I must succeed on their terms, too.
What is success anyway?
Current social norms tell us that success is making money. Lots of it. You get a job, you work hard, and you make money. Because (and that’s a very Protestant thing, if you go deep down in cultural history (read Weber)) doing well in life is a sign that you’ve been “chosen” (it used to be by God, now it’s just being special or something).
If you read enough “tips for living” blogs and follow even just a few “life gurus” on Twitter, you’ll understand what I mean. “5 tips for success” “how to succeed in life” “how to change your life for success”–they all give a false impression that success (and especially monetary success) is as easy as following five tips or going through a bunch of pre-packaged (and over-digested) steps.
And given how many articles like these pop up every week, it’s a topic that attracts. People want to know how to be successful, usually as quick as possible. Network. Find that big job. Make a 6-figure salary. If the Occupy movement showed me anything, it’s that those dreams are, for most of us, castles in the sky, let alone make a decent living wage out of working in a Wal-Mart.
I was translating a manga this week, seemingly an indie one. The story happened between the 1st and 2nd World Wars in Japan. A crab fishing boat goes out to Kamchatka to fish, “for the glory of the Empire”, the bosses say. The venture is rife with inhuman and unethical practices: stealing, lying and abusing the workers. The waters are treacherous and the job itself very dangerous.
One day, one of the fishing boats is lost. The captain complains that he doesn’t mind losing a couple of sailors, but the boat was irreplaceable. Eventually, the lost boat shows back up after a stint in Russia, where the sailors learned about the “true nature” of communism (all flowers and sunshine). They plan a strike, which is swiftly broken by the Japanese military. Basically, your typical Communist Manifesto, illustrated manga edition.
But the one element of the story that’s relevant here (and I’m sorry for the digression) is that when a supply ship shows up to refuel the crab fishing fleet, the sailors are treated to an American movie about the conquest of the West, where hard work is rewarded by money and status. The presenter, all propagandist that he is, tells them that the lesson from the movie is to “work hard, because nothing else matters” and “hard work is rewarded”. A clever sailor shouts: “If that was the case, I’d be CEO by now!”
If success was only based on hard work and abilities, yeah, I’d be a CEO too. And a damn good one at that.
Life isn’t about money
But personally, I can’t get behind this model anymore. Yeah, sure, you need to make money to survive, but how much do you really need? A roof, food, some clothes, a way to entertain yourself.
I started thinking about other kinds of success, the kind that isn’t counted in dollars in your bank account or in the number of shiny things you own. Emotional success. Spiritual success.
Life isn’t about money.
Money is a tool that facilitates exchanges. Nothing more. It doesn’t even “exist” like I exist or this computer exists. When’s the last time you actually held coins and notes in your hand? As money becomes more abstract, I think, it gets more difficult to see how much it influences our behaviour in unhealthy ways.
I don’t pretend to be an economist or a psychologist. I’m just working from observation and experience here, so bear with me. But I’m sure if I did even a minimal amount of research, I would find something to support my claims.
I want to be successful in my relationships with others and with myself. I want to work towards fulfilling my human potential–and not only my potential for monetizing my work. “Human Resources“–probably one of the most harmful euphemisms in modern language. George Orwell would have a field trip with modern business speak.
I am more than the profit your company makes out of my 8 hours a day. I am more than my productivity. When we fall in this trap, when all we see is our productivity, instead of our meaningfulness, that’s when we are lost.
Ambition ends where happiness starts
Someone on Twitter told me last night that they were interested in my view on this topic because they were told they weren’t ambitious enough. And it was meant in a bad way, as in “how can you be satisfied with such a paltry life?”
This hasn’t happened to me, but I can imagine the replies I would give to such a comment. “How dare you judge how I want to live my life. I judge what is meaningful to me, and if I like my life the way it is.” If this person is fulfilled in all the aspects of her life–financially, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually (Maslow!)–then what is ambition good for? Only to spoil a perfectly good and meaningful life.
Some successful people are happy–again, I want to say I’m not making generalizations here. But what I see is constantly unfulfilled people. Tantalus never eats his food; Sisyphus must always roll the rock back up the hill. It never ends. And we idolize these eternally unfulfilled people as leaders and models because they make money.
When being happy only means having a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger TV, we become like Sisyphus and Tantalus, always working and never being fulfilled.
Someone who is happy and finds meaning in all the different aspects of his or her life has no use for ambition (and I mean ambition in the sense of getting a bigger job for its own sake). If the new job is meaningful and helps fulfill you in other ways, then go ahead and take it.
We need to be meaningful, not rich
One thing I’ve been struggling with in the past few months is how to be meaningful. How can I bring something positive to the world? How can I touch or change lives? How can I do good?
Money doesn’t buy meaning. Money buys things (or people, if you want to look at it this way). Getting a job might make me look more successful, but unless it fulfills a bunch of conditions, it won’t make me feel more meaningful.
Success is not synonymous with meaning. I refuse to accept that the worth of my life will be decided by my salary. I reject the premise that the only measure for ambition is a paycheque.
I want to be meaningful. I want my life to leave a trace that the waves of time won’t erase.