Monday, May 4, 2009

The Problem with Success

Almost anything worth doing well is nearly impossible to do at all. This maxim applies to governments, corporations, small groups, and individuals.

For example, mechanical reproduction is, if not exactly easy, highly likely to succeed. Even reproduction on a huge scale—e.g., making and dispensing 550 million nearly identical Big Macs every year—does not require a gift for physics or the culinary arts, and yet perfect success is all but guaranteed. However, its very success is a clue to its triviality.

On the other hand, teaching young adults to think independently and logically—as well as clearly—is imperative in a working democracy. It is also, alas, only barely within the bounds of possibility. As an English teacher at a community college, I speak from experience.

But impossibility is no reason to stop trying.

The most important tasks in life—leadership, health care, peace making, “knowing thyself”—are only imperfectly achieved. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we don’t even get close.

So in a culture predicated on success—even worse, repeatable success—we sometimes find EZ-ier substitutes for the most important tasks.

Instead of leadership, we may aim for popularity or rapid off-the-cuff decisiveness. Neither substitute has a tenth of the value of genuine leadership—but the makeshifts have the advantage of being both easily measured and more likely to produce identifiable effects. This is the stuff of bureaucrats, though, not leaders.

Health can be downgraded to a regimen of pep pills and painkillers. “Knowing thyself” can be shrunk down to shopping till you drop. An attractive fa├žade, instead of a firm foundation. A “purpose-driven life,” not holiness. Stabilization, not peace. Quantity, not quality.

For me, the problem with success—or the business model of success—is that it discourages true excellence. So what, if we get the box checked next to “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations”? We may be relieved to think that a program or methodology can ease us towards our goals, but we forget that anything we have ever done really well in our lives—the thing that made a genuine difference and made us who we are now—was not accomplished by following steps. Or even by setting ordinary “expectations” as a gauge.

Or I don’t think so. I may be speaking only to myself here.

I’ve read a few how-to-succeed books and always come away mildly disappointed. They are full of platitudes—sometimes useful reminders of the obvious—and case histories of people who have reduced their lives to some sort of system that others can sign on to. I end up shrugging my shoulders and saying, “I just can’t color between those lines.”

I’ve also read a few biographies of people I count as geniuses. Here, the general impression I get is that these people cared little for success. They had passions, ideas, and obsessions—even madness—but no career path whatsoever.

It’s hard for me to imagine any of them—Swift, Johnson, Jefferson, Wilde, Einstein, Proust, Woolf, Turing, Wittgenstein—touting merit badges, prizes, commendations, or 4.0 GPAs. Even when they received accolades, they didn’t seem to attribute any importance to them.

None of the people I now admire keep up with the Joneses (unless their name is Jones) or have role models. It apparently never occurs to them to measure themselves against other people or to set their sights on any one definite goal. They seek what is important to them, not success per se.

Geniuses—or even regular schmucks like me living their lives outside conventions—aim for enigmas, sublimity, mysteries. They have callings, not careers. They aim for the inestimable and the unreachable—not the cheese in the middle of the maze. Therefore, in a real sense, they always fail—though their failures may later define other people’s concepts of success. Achievers climb ladders built by geniuses who never reached their destinations.

But with the growth of the business model of success in the twentieth century—from Dale Carnegie to Norman Vincent Peale to Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins—we see a correlating decline in poetry, the arts, and intellectual brilliance, even while business, technology, and marketing acumen has reached a sort of zenith. Until just recently, we were surrounded by so many stories of unparalleled success that we were beginning to believe that success is the air we breathe.

So, then, have we given up on what is worth doing well, just because it’s nearly impossible to do at all?

(On a darker, more jarring and anticlimactic—and perhaps irrelevant—note, I’ve sometimes pondered why, in the modern era, so many artists and creative types have taken their own lives—Vincent Van Gogh, Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane, Sara Teasdale, Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, Yukio Mishima, Diane Arbus, William Inge, John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Primo Levi, Chet Baker, Jerzy Kosinski, Bruno Bettelheim, Kurt Cobain, Gilles Deleuze, Spalding Gray, Hunter J. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and on and on. What previous century saw such a vast self-immolation of its brightest lights? Was it something peculiar to the century?)

1 comment:

  1. And Mark Rothko, George Sanders, Capucine, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anne Sexton, Margaux Hemingway, Malcolm Lowry ...

    ReplyDelete

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