Literally speaking, success means achieving the ends you set out to achieve. A successful basketball shot is one that goes in the hoop. In this sense, the ancient Stoics said that a virtuous person is always successful, because the express goal of life is to acquire virtue; an evil person is by definition a failure.
But most of the time, the word “success” has more specific connotations. Usually, when we think of success we think of the common cultural standard of success. This stereotypical picture of success varies by cultural context. In American culture, we think of a businessman who makes a lot of money, has two cars and a nice house in the suburbs, and has a beautiful, devoted wife and two-and-a-half children. This is a sort of archetypical ideal of the goals we expect people to have.
A broader definition of worldly success could be the praise and approval of other people. After all, why would we care whether we achieve our goals if no one notices or appreciates what we’ve done? Perhaps people pursue the traditional suburban dream of worldly success because they think that’s what other people will approve of. By this definition, success is defined not by what an individual person desires, but by what a person will find praiseworthy in someone else. For example, an act of self-sacrifice like doing your housemates’ dishes, giving to charity, or running into a burning building to save a life are things that people usually find to be unenjoyable in and of themselves, but they are all things that we respect other people for doing. We might consider a famously heroic person to have lived a successful life, though their life might not have been as enjoyable as the archetypical successful suburban businessman. Their success comes from the esteem they hold in others’ eyes.
In this sense, worldly success is often contrasted with spiritual success. Worldly success means winning the approval of human beings; spiritual success means winning the approval of God. Both types of success agree that an individual person cannot achieve their purpose in isolation: they must seek validation from some external standard. Examples of spiritual success are common in religious writings: typically, a person is condemned in their own society because of their devotion to God, but later they find some kind of supernatural approval. For example, in the book of Daniel in Jewish and Christian writings, many of the story’s heroes are condemned by the authorities but saved by divine intervention. In the Christian era, there are countless stories of martyrs whose worldly failure includes the loss of their lives; their success is in the afterlife and by reputation.
Critics of spiritual standards of success argue that the so-called approval of God is merely the approval of some other person. For example, consider a high schooler who is unpopular because she refuses to get drunk, do drugs, gossip, have sex, and skip school–is this social outcast trying to win the approval of God or, perhaps, the approval of her parents or youth pastor? In this sense, the idea of spiritual success is dependent on believing in some revelation of God’s will as distinct from the will of merely human authorities. Otherwise, a person who renounces the common definition of success in order to appeal to a higher moral code is merely seeking the approval of (supposedly) better people.
Often, conversations about success pass up defining what success is, and instead focus on the means of becoming successful. Self-help books and other ethical treatises discuss how to be persistent and bold and strong of will, and these skills can be applied to whatever standard of success a person may have.
Different standards of success are sometimes in conflict with each other. For example, consider a student who obsesses over his grades in order to get into a good university and be successful later in life. He sacrifices his current happiness so that he can be happy later and enjoy all the benefits of his hard work, but when will the sacrifice end? Will he only get to truly relax when he retires? Or is he supposed to actually enjoy working so hard, even now? Is his success based on happiness and comfort or on what is achieved by his hard work? Does success demand sacrifice?
Ultimately, any standard of success depends on some kind of emotional satisfaction. Whether we desire the approval of our peers, our elders, our own personal moral code, or whether we believe in a God-given standard, the feeling of success ought to include some observable feeling of justification, that our efforts were worthwhile. Many people find that the goal they’ve been pursuing so long ultimately rings hollow when they finally achieve it. If success means accomplishing our purposes, then we ought to be able to recognize the value of the goal when we see it.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you find it to be difficult to pursue a goal when the people around you have a very different standard of success? What do you do in these situations? For example, do you find it to be necessary to have a supportive person in your life who knows what you’re trying to do and can encourage you?
What do you think is the most important factor in determining whether a person achieves their goals?
Do you think most people have pretty much the same standards of success? Or do you think most people are pursuing goals that their peers would not see the value of?
How do you define success? Do you think you’ve achieved it?
People define success in different ways, but just about every standard of success requires the praise and approval of some person: one’s peers, one’s elders, oneself, God, or some other moral authority.
A standard of success is usually seen as emotionally satisfying in the long run.
It can often be difficult to pursue a standard of success when surrounded by people who are pursuing a very different goal. Because of this, many people’s ideas of success tend to congregate around a certain stereotypical standard of worldly success–usually involving a big suburban house–which they assume everyone else wants.