I admit, recent posts have been pretty hard on success. No doubt some of you will be asking, why should we not aspire? Are we to shun ambition and go live in the sun? Everyone admires the discipline, effort, and drive that push the limits of human thought and performance. Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from the Michael Phelpses, Lance Armstrongs, or Reinhold Messners of this world? If, as Blake said, exuberance is beauty, how much more beautiful it is when someone throws their whole soul into some endeavor. Why begrudge an Olympic gold medal or Nobel prize under the guise of a more exalted philosophy? Even the I-Ching says that perseverance furthers.
Fair enough. But what’s really at issue is not success per se, but rather the worship of success, which D.H. Lawrence famously called “the bitch goddess.” We all need some success in order to maintain self-esteem, stay in the game, and put food on the table. A moderate level of success can nourish both body and soul. Beyond that, three serious problems arise.
First, consider the how the world rewards endeavor. Success means you get to do more of the same. If you teach well, they give you tenure. If your book sells, your publisher wants another. If you do well at your job, you get promoted. You become known for what you are good at. Opportunities come your way, and the more you take advantage of them, the more come knocking at the door. Success feeds on itself; that’s why we say that “nothing succeeds like success.” Because everyone loves a winner.
With the world’s rewards coming thick and fast, and even faster as time goes on, it becomes very difficult to step aside. But that is often what your growth requires. Growth, by definition, means change, development, new things, new ventures, stretching yourself, taking risks, discovery, maturation, uncertainty, even anxiety, perhaps even pain. But it also means vitality, health, and a sense of unfolding. We feel most alive when we are learning and growing; we feel happy and young. From this point of view, success can appear as a hindrance. Too much can limit our vision and even our desire for growth. We can settle into the comfort of our competencies. But, as the wise person said, if you are sitting on your laurels, it means you are wearing them in the wrong place.
Second, consider how many of your most memorable experiences, the ones from which you learned the most, did not come by choice but by chance, or from your enemies, or through some catastrophe in the outside world. Do you really think you are the best judge of what’s good for you? What does your life tell you in this regard? Has it always been good for you to write your own ticket? Certainly, that’s one way the world rewards success, and we commonly think of it as a good thing. But is it? Getting one’s way may feel affirming at first, but a well-worn path soon deepens into a rut, and thence into a ravine from which it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond the rim.
How much worse, then, when we internalize ambition and achievement so that they become bound up with our own sense of self. Not only institutions, but people become addicted to success. “How,” asked Thoreau, “can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?” As academicians, how admiringly we regard those who are “disciplined” and “productive”, forgetting that these are also characteristic of machines.
And this brings us to the third problem with success, which is that it’s not inevitable. It depends on luck and circumstances as well as on ability, effort, or qualifications. We all want to feel in control of our lives, as so we study hard, work hard, and try to do all the right things. And still we may not get the job, we may be denied tenure, our true love may fall for someone else, our book deal may blow up, our institution may implode, our prudent investment may evaporate overnight. Because, as medieval sages knew, Fortune will turn her wheel. The Black Swan will appear. Shit happens.
To loosen the hold of success on your imagination, always do what brings you joy, feeds your spirit, and feels worth doing for its own sake. Learn from everything, no matter how painful, for if you are in a learning mode, you can’t lose.
And with that, we turn to the Warrior Phase.