Privilege, Luck, EFFORT, and the Lingering Question of Success Part 1

Success is a strange concept. What does it look like? How do you measure it? How do you know when you get there? Why is it so hard for some people but seems easy for others? If it is different for everybody, how can it possibly be defined?

Often, when talking about success, you are apt to hear motivational phrases like "You can do anything as long as you set your mind to it," or "If you dream it, you can achieve it," or "If you work hard enough you will succeed." While the intent is noble, the implications are discouraging. Anything? Dream? Enough?

What are the limits to anything? Is there a dream that is too big? And how much is enough? If my dream is to do the moonwalk on the moon, there might be some challenges. We haven't sent a person to the moon since 1972. NASA isn't sending anyone to the moon. The Roscosmos aren't sending anyone to the moon. Even Elon Musk with his seemingly endless wealth hasn't planned to send his SpaceX program to the moon - he is aiming for Mars. Dream all I want, set my mind to it as much as possible, work as hard as I possibly can, moonwalking on the moon is probably not something that I would ever be able to do. While plausible, success is certainly unlikely. For some dreams, effort and wishful thinking are not enough.

What about realistic dreams? If I’m not able to reach my goals, does that automatically mean I’m not working hard enough? How hard does someone have to work before they can earn it? Is the required indescribable?

So the question lingers. What is success? How can it be achieved?

A quick browse through Amazon shows this is a question that many have attempted to answer. Searching Amazon Books for the word "success" returns over 265 thousand results. Authors like Jack Canfield, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Covey, and John Maxwell have built careers teaching their roadmap to success. While you might find similarities between the approaches these writers have taken in their lives, one thing is apparent: there are at least 265 thousand different ways to be successful. One could even argue there are seven billion different ways to be successful. If every person residing on earth is unique, wouldn't logic argue that the way we measure our success is just as peculiar as each individual?

Many who have achieved such successes, be it financial freedom, physical fitness, or professional acumen find themselves trying to pass on the lessons they’ve learned. But rather than helping others out of the goodness of their hearts, they seek to monetize their effort. They write self-help books, become life coaches, promote themselves as exercise gurus, peddling their own version of a get-rich-quick scheme. They are self-appointed experts in search of an audience. The lure is nearly irresistible: ‘If I can do it, so can anyone else – but only if they do it just like I did it.’ They insist their path is the only route to success and condemn anyone who contradicts them. It is the classic case of the self-attribution fallacy: the argument that your success is solely due to a unique set of skills and talents and the illusion of hard work. Self-attribution ignores factors and circumstances out of your control that played a contributing role in your success.

But hey – you’re the one that worked really hard, you must know what you’re doing. Right?

Granted, I know not all who specialize in self-improvement are scam artists. There are many who have made their fortunes by actually helping people. Dave Ramsey has built an empire because he knows what he’s talking about and has provided sound advice to thousands. In my book collection, you will find titles from authors that have turned their own successes into motivational material for readers like me. But for every genuine expert there are a hundred more trying to capitalize on their newfound proficiency. These are the people who set the standard to which they believe we should all aspire.

In America, those metrics to evaluate success tend to follow a common theme: wealth, possessions, status, job title, influence, power. It reminds me of a Steve Taylor song, 'What Is the Measure of Your Success?' His lyrics make a blunt confession ("I am driven to possess") and follows it up with an inquiry ("Are you someone I impress?") in a sharp critique of greed and materialism.

Such pursuit is immoral, yet we chase those things. We somehow define wealth as an income twice as large as our own. We think those who have big houses, boats, RVs, and fancy cars are the archetype of happiness but forget about the mortgages, leases, and maintenance costs to maintain such an image. We marvel at the designer suites and limitless cash flow of high level business executives while completely unaware they haven't spoken to their kids in weeks.

We all measure success a little differently. One man's come up is another's abject failure. As Jesus once said, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"

Before I get carried away, I do not wish to disparage anyone who has - by their own measure found success. Such accomplishments are a rarity in our world. But I often wonder if the cost was worth it. Observing recent interactions between those who describe themselves as hard-working self-made successes and those who are struggling to do more than simply exist, it almost seems like the price of accomplishment is too high, as there are those who have gleefully lost their soul to revel in the world they found.

If you describe yourself as a successful person, I commend you. I know it wasn’t easy to get to where you are. Please allow me to urge you to consider a few thoughts.

1. Don’t ever forget how incredibly privileged you are. Success is an elusive creature for many. What you have is a gift and should be treated like it could be gone tomorrow.
2. It could be gone tomorrow. Nothing in this world lasts forever. Even if you have adequately planned for and budgeted savings in case of emergency, don’t ever forget your stuff is terrestrial in nature and you cannot take it with you when your time here ends.
3. Do not ever look down on those who are struggling to make ends meet. It is easy to pick apart someone else’s life and tell them what they’re doing wrong. Unless they asked for your input, it is condescending. It is easy to criticize someone for binge watching Netflix when it doesn’t line up with your work ethic, but you don’t know anything about their lives.
4. Sometimes, telling someone they just need to work harder is an insult. I work hard but I know people who work harder than I do and they are facing worse circumstances than I have ever endured. If effort and ingenuity were guaranteed paths to wealth and success, the bulk of this planet’s wealth would be shifted from Wall Street to the African continent.

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