Bill Gates - an example of traditional successI'd like to talk about an insight I had about the nature of success. Traditionally, we think of success as the fulfillment of some goal in the immediate sense or achievement of a desired social status in the broader context. We assign objective measures like wealth, fame, professional achievement. If I asked you to name the most successful people in the world, who would flash into your mind? President Obama, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey seem like good examples. Why pick these people? Their immense public achievements; they have reached a level of esteem, fame, wealth, and professional achievement that we find admirable. Looking at our own lives we see those around us with the high-paying jobs, those with important professional responsibilities, those with impressive material possessions, those that we respect for their competence, intelligence, and charisma. Surely these are measures of success.
But what else makes up "success"?
I would suggest there are less obvious measures that are of profound value. I wrote about this recently, but how about the happy marriage? Happy is the key and hard to measure, but I would say that a happy marriage not only improves the lives of husband and wife, but provides a substantial foundation for the well-being of that couple's children. If one of society's greatest challenges is getting young people through adolescence ready to join the "real" world, then what better start than under a happy marriage? And in that same vein, how about being a good parent? Providing the care, love, and guidance that can help children become well-adjusted adults. Someone once told me that the most important job a person will ever have is being a parent. That's not a hollow statement, we all know children whose lives as been damaged, sometimes irrevocably, from neglectful parenting.
Good parenting - a hidden successHow about the value of charity? Giving one's time, money, effort to others, especially others in need, must improve our world. Isn't responsible altruism a mark of success? More broadly, charity in its widest context, that of a loving kindness toward others, was described by Saint Paul as the greatest of all virtues. Certainly anyone who can embody even a portion of this virtue is a success. It sounds simple, but how many people do you know who can follow Henry James’ dictum: “three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind”?
How about being a loyal and dependable friend? Maintaining long-standing relationships, being there for others in good times and bad?
Perhaps you could term these as "selfless" measures of success and the more traditional forms noted above as "selfish" measures of success.
I believe an evolved individual must be both selfish and selfless; responsible to yourself and to others around you. As I’ve written, the great achievements in human history and the upward arc of humanity are the result of the selfish impulse, measured in selfish success. This must be so. But as throughout history we have slowly and painfully learned to function as a community, and are still struggling, surely we must recognize the vital importance of selfless acts, measured in selfless success.
Who do you know that is a selfless success? I count myself fortunate to know many successes of this type: my parents, my girlfriend, many of my friends. I’m a better person for it, and hopefully I can learn from their example.
In Woody Allen’s excellent movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, there is a character of a sleazy and shallow television executive played by Alan Alda. He’s a bad human being, but he’s been immensely successful in his career. In the end he wins the girl, wealth, and the esteem of those around him. He epitomizes that reality that our society seems to value selfish success over all other behavior. We lavish attention on celebrities, athletes, business leaders, and politicians. These people gain fame and wealth, are idolized and too often viewed as role models and even “heroes”.
If I asked you to pick one form of success for yourself, selfish or selfless, which would it be?