Rethinking Success 2

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.”  But what about those who do?  No doubt victory is sweet, as is revenge, but only for a time, and not such a long time at that.  A recent study, reported in the Chronicle, sought to determine how free professors felt at various stages of their careers – free, that is, to speak up in meetings, express unpopular opinions, pursue controversial  lines of inquiry, or take positions contrary to those of administration.  Surprisingly, the award of tenure did not increase feelings of freedom; people began to loosen up and take risks only when they had achieved full professor.  It was not until then, apparently, that they ceased watching their back.

As Mark’s last post vividly describes, we academics are always looking about us, one eye on the competition and the other on career milestones like finishing the Ph.D., getting that tenure track job, achieving tenure, and gaining promotion.  Each step up the ladder constitutes a small victory; each publication or promotion adds another sprig of laurel to one’s crown. Our world thrives on judgment, prestige, and an exquisite sense of rank.  An informal yet rigid class system prevails: how else could one write a book entitled, Teaching at a Third Rate University?  In a culture that over-values security, it is not hard to see why hierarchy and exclusivity govern our mutual relations, infecting them with envy, bigotry, and pride.  People are always comparing, contrasting, looking you over, up, and down, but seldom straight in the eye.  They want to know where you teach, who you studied with, what you have published, what you are working on, all so that they can quickly calculate how seriously to take you.  No wonder we all get so tired.

What is success anyway?  It depends on who you talk to.  Every group has a definition that reflects its own interests, and therefore its own insecurities.  For academia, these include rank, prestige, and reputation, which are judgments, always made by others and frequently by oneself as well.  After years of immersion we internalize these judgments, believing we will never be happy without success.

But happiness and success are not the same thing.  Indeed, they are different kinds of things.  Happiness is not a judgment but a feeling. It comes from inward experience rather than external validation.  Think of what makes you happy: the list might include good health, intimacy with friends and loved ones, good times with your family, being in the presence of great beauty, a springtime walk in the park or the woods, a good meal, a nice hot bath, learning something, creating something.  Now think of how we measure success: accomplishing a chosen goal, making a lot of money, getting what you want, driving a fancy car or living in a big fancy house, having a high-ranking position, winning prizes, defeating your enemies.   Often, to gain the latter you must sacrifice the former. Thus do the gods we worship reveal themselves.

Balancing happiness and success is a crucial task for any ambitious person, especially in academe, where evaluation, critique, and comparative thinking rule.  When something is highly desired, it becomes very difficult to examine – which only makes the task more urgent.

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