Success Vs. Contentment?

I get a little uncomfortable when I hear someone praised for being “successful.” Usually it means the successful person has either made a lot of money, or they’ve reached the top of some ladder of achievement—or both. Understood this way, “success” is a static condition. The envied person is frozen in our minds: Behold, SUCCESS!

Yes, successful people deserve recognition. The problem is, we expect the same individuals to be happy.

Actually, individuals in and of themselves are isolated. It’s deluded to think people can live isolated lives and not become deeply sad, greedy, stupendously selfish, or rageful.

After Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, his mother Gladys told the New York Times she “had no idea why he might have decided to kill himself. ‘He had everything,’ she said. “Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.’”

Photo: Jason Wong on Unsplash

When I read this I thought: ‘Yeah, but he had you for a mother.’ Obviously, I don’t know the real story of Ms. Bourdain and her relationship with her son. But believing that fame and money are enough to protect a person from deep despair shows a shocking lack of understanding—It’s so patently ignorant that it made me question how supportive she’d been to him over the years.

Just to be clear: The drive to achieve something isn’t the problem—it’s led to amazing innovations from lifesaving AIDS medications to a cure for Hepatitis C to real social change.

But too often, I envy people who excel at the kind of measurable excellence you can achieve in a state of isolation from others—and from yourself: High test scores. Expensive clothes, lots of attendees at your lecture because you’re so great in front of a crowd.

I’ve heard bank presidents and CEOs describe themselves as not very successful. This sense of not being enough isn’t really about lack of success. It can reveal ambivalence or shame about meaningful human connection. Once at a party attended mostly by young entrepreneurs and innovators, I met a woman in her late thirties. When I asked the inevitable question, What Do You Do? she glanced quickly to the side. Then she leaned toward me and spoke in a lowered voice, like a newly released felon. “I stay at home to raise my children,” she admitted.

A culture that fosters shame among mothers, who hold so much power over young lives and future leaders, needs some readjustment. It’s not such a far cry from devaluing motherhood—and fatherhood—among middle class people, to forceful separation of parents and children who seek refuge in the US from violence in Central America.

To claim that you’ve achieved Success all by yourself, as our president does, is a lie—and that’s not such a far cry from making up your own reality to avoid any admission of weakness or wrong.

It’s impossible not to breathe the air around us. I’m recognizing in my own life that shooting for recognition as a writer can only take me so far. What I need is to recognize how in this work, I’m part of something bigger than myself—a team.

Teamwork is hard work. We mess up the greater purpose: personal traumas, miscommunications, unacknowledged racism, you name it. Group work requires learning how to hang in together. It requires learning how to set aside one’s own reactivity and open oneself to the hurt behind someone else’s anger. Conflicts will happen; but it is possible to resolve many of them in such a way that both parties benefit. This kind of resolution comes not from deal-making and compromise, but from daring to be vulnerable together. It’s through deep listening that we truly see one another.

We can learn these skills because we were born with them—in our vulnerability we’re wired for attachment and connection—and THAT is our superpower. Too often we shed these skills along the road to ‘success.’ So let’s question ‘success.’ Let’s develop a new definition, not by writing one, but by living it.

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