Sunday, February 25, 2007

What Counts As Success In This Life?

On a recent trip to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, I stood transfixed before the circular, floor-to-ceiling tank at the entrance to the exhibits. It’s a lighted tank, full of tropical fish. A bright yellow fish, about the shape and size of a large, vertical pancake, swam lazily near the glass. I bent over, aligning my eye with its eye. I waited for some sign of recognition, if not from the fish, then from within myself; we are both the stuff of earth. The fish waggled its tail and turned, unresponsive, from me. I watched it pass into a mesmerizing conglomerate of fish. A heaviness descended on me; I was tired, but almost giddy, too; depressed, but also anxious. I turned to my friend beside me and said, “Why? What does it all mean?”

An Australian Lungfish at the aquarium has been on exhibit since it arrived for the Chicago World’s Fair, in between the two world wars. It sits, hardly moving, near the bottom of a shallow tank, as it has done for 74 years, while men and women have lived and died and loved and fought; faced failure, loss, disillusionment and, sometimes, success.

Humanity, as a species, is purpose-driven. We want to do something, but also to know why we are doing it. What use are we to our selves, to others, to the world? This is why we don’t exactly love the menial things like washing clothes or dusting bookshelves. These activities don’t seem to “get us” anywhere; they simply maintain a state of being. Standing there in front of the tank, I saw the entire life of a fish as consisting of the maintenance of a state; that of existing. A voice in my head fairly screamed, “But what is the point of existing?”

Several years ago, I had the—dare I say—pleasure of being depressed at the same time as a friend. We sat side by side in front of a small, dimly lit fish tank. He told me he’d heard that fish-watching is therapeutic for depressives. I could only work out that it must have something to do with water and “gentle” movement. I’m wondering now if it doesn’t work (if at all—sitting silently with an understanding friend goes a lot further, I think) in a more unexpected way. The fish does not pursue purpose. The fish doesn’t fail or succeed in anything, except most basically; it either procures a meal or it doesn’t; it escapes being prey or it doesn’t. And the life of an aquarium fish is even less purposeful, since it has no need of eluding predators or finding food. Yet, the human being, watching the fish, cannot help but look for ways to assign meaning to its meanderings from one side of the tank to the other or at least, to recognize how very different she is from a fish. If this is insufficient proof of genuine meaning, it is at least sufficient to demonstrate that human life is a series of purposeful actions directed toward attainment of a goal (or goals), which will result in a status change or an improvement; a growth. Accomplishment of these goals, we call success.

But what counts as success? Must we always achieve our goals in order to be successful? What happens when the pursuit of a goal leads you to conclude that you should abandon it? Have you failed? I read a fascinating paper, once, exploring the idea of “sunk costs”. The example accompanying this explanation of the term is that of a pre-paid theater ticket, in the event that it is non-refundable and the buyer no longer wants to see the movie.

...[T]he ticket buyer can choose between the following two end results:

  1. Having paid the price of the ticket and having suffered watching a movie that he does not want to see, or;
  2. Having paid the price of the ticket and having used the time to do something more fun.

Let's say I went to the theater and pre-bought a movie ticket for later in the evening. On my way out the door, I ran into a friend, who assured me that the movie in question was a tremendous waste of time, and also invited me to a dinner party at her house, the same night. If I do what I want to do, my original goal of seeing the film will remain unaccomplished. However, had I not pursued the goal and paid the price of the ticket, I would not have bumped into my friend, nor been invited to her party. I need to accept the ticket price as a sunk cost and leave it behind me, where it properly lies. If we are too rigid about accomplishing our goals, we will experience dissatisfaction and failure, as surely as if we make no goals at all.

A definition of success seems more nuanced than "the accomplishment of a goal". Must the goal come to fruition in order to achieve success? As a writer, a reasonable goal may be to get published, one day. The pursuit of that goal will certainly make me a better writer and hopefully be of some interest to my friends and family. But what if I never find someone willing to publish me? Does this mean I am not a successful writer?

How do we determine when we are being successful? In other words, on the road to a goal, at what point can we say we are “having success”? I came across a definition of success as,

“Doing what you said you would do, with ease." (Maria Nemeth)
I guess the "ease" part is put in there to imply that “things are working” and you are, therefore, “experiencing” success. This seems ridiculous to me. Many successes are a hell of a fight, and we don’t know until the last minute that we’re going to win.

Building disciplines into our daily lives, which become habits and then mature into character—as we talked about in a previous discussion—will equip us to achieve our goals. But what if we uncover a fundamental personal deficit? William James made this bold statement,

"There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man's lack of faith in his true self."
I can see how that statement may be inspiring (to me it is only depressing), but it simply isn’t true. We sometimes make honest mistakes and other times, we misjudge our capabilities. There is more than one way to fall off the side of a cliff, and lack of faith is not the most usual. So perhaps the important part in success is fixing on the proper goal, in the first place.

Albert Einstein, by all accounts very successful, said,

"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value."
When we think of what makes someone “valuable” in her field or in his relationships, we see it is those with integrity who are valued. If we love a thing and do it as well as we can, perhaps that is success?

How about Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of success?

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded."

It certainly wouldn’t do for a fish.


Edmond said...

As a writer, a reasonable goal may be to get published, one day. The pursuit of that goal will certainly make me a better writer and hopefully be of some interest to my friends and family. But what if I never find someone willing to publish me? Does this mean I am not a successful writer?

No, it simply means that you didn't succeed at the particular goal of getting published, but perhaps that wasn't the best metric for measuring your success as a writer. We can certainly set out to do one thing and succeed in another way entirely.

I have one more thought to add. Emily Dickinson talks about success thus:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

The idea being that those who lack, those who seldom succeed, understand what it is they lack and what that goal is better than someone who has it or has achieved it.

Rachael King said...

Edmond: Thanks for your thoughts. I think a lot of our feelings of failure come of defining success wrongly to begin with. I like what E.D. says, because sometimes it can feel like it takes everything we've got to achieve even a small success. But if the cripple walks from her chair to her table, isn't it a joyous occasion far beyond the occasion of her friend walking half a mile to visit? Often, our standard of success not only consists of the wrong goals, but it expects everybody to attain the same ones.

Greg said...

Seems to me that the measure of success has to have something to do with what's true. If that's the case, would searching for and finding that which is true equate success?

Rachael King said...

Greg: Good point. I think truth is a component of success (or means to it?), but not an assurance of it.

Searching for and finding truth is one kind of success but a successful human life, it seems, would have to go on to let truth shape and determine it. I think success is in 'being' or 'becoming' rather than in 'knowing', but the knowing is preliminarily essential to taking action.

Rather circularly, truth is then imparted to us in the 'doing'. So I guess it's a matter of doing the good in front of you and not letting your knowledge of truth and your practice of it drift to opposite sides of a chasm. If that happens, you can't lay claim to the truth you profess; you've got to breach the chasm, first.

Greg said...

I agree. Truth needs to shape and direct our lives if they're to be successful. Success may be in the growing awareness of the relation and distinction of being and becoming, but this depends on the destination. Can't collapse one into the other, and knowledge is integrated in/at both modes.

Rachael King said...

Perhaps we could define 'knowledge' to include the ontological sort of knowing attained through the pursuit of truth? I think it's all one process, which we could call growth. The successful growth of any living thing depends on its proper orientation to the world (sun, soil, food, work, rest). So, knowing the truth about the world, e.g., that some soils are too acidic or alkaline for proper growth, can direct the way we act into it (modify the soil or plant in a different place). Successful human life would be the whole process of growth; finding our proper orientation to the world (truth), and then working it out with our actions(growing or 'becoming').

This definition helps me see the purpose of human life as not so different from the fish's. If the purpose is to grow successfully, a fish may do that as easily as (perhaps more easily than) a human being. It also gives importance to the so called 'maintenance' activities of our lives, like bathing or laundry or washing dishes; these become essential, because they stabilize the environment for growth. More than that, they cause growth because they shape our character; much the way a plant's intake of water and sunlight are maintenance tasks, but also result in growth.

Edd said...

Perhaps the fish can help with the depression because you can easily anthropomorphise the fish into a simple human. The fish swims around thinking, and you can make up those throughts yourself (as in "It's the simple life for me... Oh look food" etc). Everything can become so simple, and you lose your own thoughts in the process; I find that calming...

Rachael King said...

edd: thanks for the comment. I agree; I have always found that, despite the complexity of nature, my interactions with it have the effect of paring down my thoughts and giving me a measure of clarity. I think it bids us step outside our self-analyzing minds long enough to see what is important about our existence.