by Bill Chapman

One might reasonably note the creeping fashion to malign success, the preoccupation with which is viewed as the unintended cause of irreparable harm to the maturation of young people in particular. The corporate push towards success is seen by many as an artificial objective and one without proven advantage. Success isn’t merely the attainment of a goal; it carries with it the typically suggestive hint of higher social status and – in the plainest of terms – the covert threat of failure. While it may be a stretch I am reminded of the learned observation of Lord Alfred T. Denning, Master of the Rolls, viz., a bastard is a child (a judgment considered at the time to run counter to the law). Viewing success as a bad thing still has the same cachet, somehow contrary to popular thinking. In Denning’s time it took the ingenuity of Parliament to reverse the Common Law; and likewise I suspect it will require what is tantamount to statutory authority to reverse years of tradition in our social perspective.

Before entertaining propositions in favour of or against success it is perhaps useful to ask whether it matters in the first place. I am not convinced that it does. Let’s be honest here, success is as amorphous as beauty. Never mind that both concepts could never be battened down; more importantly one has to ask what bonus would be achieved in being a “winner” of such a contest. Surely it is a hollow victory. Even if one seeks to argue that the avoidance of success is equivalent to closing one’s eyes to reality, it requires little examination to conclude that defining anything as successful is not self-explanatory but rather self-fulfilling – namely, success will be what you say or believe it is, just like beauty.

Nonetheless there persists in society a convenient model of success which we customarily apply to our superficial analysis of others. The standards of success are arbitrary milestones of achievement. It may however be a small compliment to a successful person that he or she has attained such markers of conduct and exposition. Of course one can readily pooh-pooh such liberality by noting for example that people like Angela Hewitt are clearly successful by any standard. Herein lies the rub – the difference between the invaluable rock and the polished gem. Are we not however embarking on the wrong inquiry? Quite aside from any standards which might be imposed by the “common man” I wager that Ms. Hewitt would achieve universal approbation with or without our piddling standards. That is, the cream will rise to the top whatever construct we may engage. There remains the question whether being labeled a success has any bearing whatever upon the likes of Ms. Hewitt who (while no doubt happy to have you purchase her albums) is conceivably quite unmoved by the applause and public adoration; I’m guessing that her satisfaction is more personal than otherwise. So, if the denomination of success is a feckless pronouncement one has to ask whom does it benefit? The quandary is especially disturbing when it is recognized that the bestowal of success is nothing more than an after-the-fact recognition of what already exists and which would undoubtedly have existed without the benefit of the gesture.

Stories unfortunately abound of the graduating student voted “Most Likely to Succeed” who ends by practising death scenes off the local bridge. Being a success can become an abominable imposition. Left to his or her own devices, the successful person will normally advance with the same avidity and motivation in later life as he or she did so previously; and if not, then it will hardly be the fault of lack of recognition. It is useless to add to the list of psychiatric train wrecks another person who felt needlessly pressured to be or become a success.

If one accepts that the majority of people do not fit the customary mold of success then the further debate arises concerning the possible damage to those people who have by default failed. When precisely will the sense of defeat take hold? What are its ramifications? Is success merely a puerile gimmick that we must learn to outgrow? Does anyone really remember or care who got 95% on the history exam in public school? Is he or she truly a success who pursues the model in spite of subsequent inner turmoil and rejection? Is the mad fear of defeat something we want to teach our children? And if not, when do we tell them the gig is up?

Most of us know that the charmed existence of being a student eventually gives way to the comparatively cruel world of adulthood and private commerce. Certainly there persist some organizations and institutions which measure their chosen inductees by the strength of their report card alone. But I can tell you of many other instances where such arbitrary assessment was not only wrong but also needlessly limiting. The number of times which the gauge of success has proven to be inaccurate can only invite a reconsideration of its merit.

The way we look at people, the way we decide upon whom we love or with whom we work, is far too complicated to pretend that it depends in any realistic sense upon their success. Successful people do what they do with or without our endorsement. And I cannot fathom any reason to burden others with what amounts to an alternative cloak of deficiency. Furthermore anyone who imagines for a minute that luck has nothing to do with it is deceiving themselves. You’re neither a success nor a failure – we are human beings and have only to do what contributes to the happiness of ourselves and others.