The Modern Survival Guide #43
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I’m a fairly successful guy, though, and I think you should hear me out. But wait… what does being successful really mean?
This article is about how we think about success, and coming up with a good way of defining it. Everyone wants to be successful. It’s part of the human condition, probably built into us at a time when the success of the individual meant the tribe got to eat. Success is the dream of every parent for their child, and the hope of every child for their future. Adults do all kinds of crazy things attempting to achieve success. It’s significant enough that in some cultures, lack of success leads to literal withdrawal from society. Success, and the perception of success, are very much a part of our survival in the modern world.
To define success, though, we have to start with a problem: everyone wants to be successful, but our definition of success is often far, far beyond the scope of what is actually attainable. This is because many of us have been told a lie about what normal is, and it has damaged our sense of reality. I’ll explore that topic a bit before moving over to what I think a “real” idea of success ought to look like.
The Lie of “Normal” — A Cultural Problem
There are two parts to the lie of “normal,” and to understand the first part I find it instructive to watch television. Not for the drama or the unattainable beauty of the actors (although those are, in their own way, similarly disruptive to the psyche), but rather for the character’s possessions and home situations. These are often wildly, even ridiculously, lavish compared to the stated lifestyles of the characters, and as background information on the show they are typically just accepted by the audience.
“Friends” is the stereotypical, and often cited, example of this phenomenon. The characters live in gargantuan apartments, which in the real world would be priced far and away beyond those characters’ incomes. And most of the people in America have seen that show, and based at least some of their ideas of a normal adult living situation on it.
Similarly, pay attention to characters’ attire and jewelry the next time you watch a show set in the modern era — and try to match those clothes up with real life. It becomes clear pretty quickly that most TV shows are pulling double duty as product placement ads for outrageously expensive products.
Here’s my point: most of what pop culture wants us to think of as “normal stuff” as we enter our 20s (or to put that another way, as we enter the paid workforce) is not at all normal. There’s a huge gap between what is necessary for camera angles and reality. There’s a huge gap between the costume budget of a drama and the clothing budget of a 20-something. And there’s an accordingly huge gap in perceptions of “normal” living.
Does this sound materialistic? It is. Very much so, as is the majority of our perception of “success.” And that’s also part of the issue. Our culture places enormous value on possessions, because they are a major source of economic and social incentive. It’s a shame that they are such a poor way of keeping score, or judging ourselves and others — particularly when we’re operating on the wrong assumptions.
The second part of the lie of “normal” has to do with our perception of our options in life. And this part is all about interpersonal relationships and jobs. There are expectations for “normal” relationships and jobs, and the paths we must take to achieve them.
A “normal” path is toward a straight nuclear family with married, college-educated adults who attend religious observances, and at least one child. Almost everything in our culture pushes us toward this path of life, and it is enormously stressful for individuals to walk a different trail.¹
But of course this image of the family unit has never been the reality for a huge segment of society, has it? There are millions of single parents. Millions of people who never have and never will attend college. Millions of people who do not have or want a traditional nuclear family. Because these people cannot attain the standard of “normal,” the perception of success is that much more difficult for them.
Similarly, a “normal” job path is toward a 40+ hour-a-week job with some kind of benefits, working roughly 9–5 hours and earning enough to support a standard of living that will eventually include a car and a house. Crucially, the house and car need to be separate from one’s parents.
But of course, that’s never been the case for a huge segment of society either, has it? The whole concept of a 40-hour-a-week job is a relatively recent invention… as are the concepts of owning separate houses and cars for one’s own individual use. This stuff all developed over the last hundred years or so, also known as the period of American economic and political hegemony, and bears little relation to any other period of American (or, for that matter, human) history.
And even within that halcyon period of time, huge swathes of society have not been able to make ends meet by working only a single job. Meanwhile housing and transport costs vary so much between the country and the city that trying to impose a single standard on these types of measures is ludicrous. And that’s not even touching wage stagnation and inflation.
But we hold these assumptions anyway, just like we judge other people and ourselves based on possessions, marital status, family groups, etc. We carry this baggage of cultural standards and the lie of “normalcy” regardless of the fact that, logically, they often don’t make any sense. And it makes it hard for us to establish a reasonable idea of “success,” when our concept of “normal” really only ever was formulated for and applied to straight, WASP, upper-middle-class nuclear households.
A Real Evaluation of Success
So then, what would a “real” evaluation of success look like? Well, let’s start with what success actually is.
Success is about achieving a goal. That’s the best fundamental standard I could come up with. But that goal — that’s the tricky bit. Because we’re all going to have multiple, sometimes competing, goals in our lives.
Making the parents proud — that’s a goal. Satisfying our own passions — that’s a goal (and Lord, doesn’t it often come at the expense of parental pride?). Making money — that’s a BIG goal. Having stuff — that’s always a goal, although the stuff changes based on your demographic. Having a relationship (or at least sex) is such a huge goal that it features in about 90% of our pop culture and entertainment media. And of course, getting right with God(s) is the defining goal in many, many lives.
And so on, and so forth. We generate goals like a garden grows weeds, and often with similar results. When people talk about a “successful” life, they mean ticking these goal boxes. Unfortunately, when people talk about a successful life, they also tend to ascribe their own goals to other people, and take other people’s goals as their own. That’s what creates a cultural expectation of “success” in the first place.
So a real definition of success needs to be a bit more flexible and a bit more loose around the edges; it doesn’t make sense to say that teachers aren’t successful compared to stockbrokers, for example. They aren’t judged on the same scale. Their goals are not the same: one instructs and educates the next generation to prepare them for the world; the other makes money and contributes to the instability of the economy. These are totally separate motivations and involve totally different day-to-day lives.
A real definition of success has to take this into account. Your life is not my life. Your goals are not my goals. Your successes are not my successes. We’re not all going to be in a position in life to make a million dollars; therefore being rich just isn’t a good goal for everyone. Goals are situation-dependent and ought to be realistic. Therefore a definition of success must be situation-dependent and realistic.
Similarly, goals change over time. If I make a million dollars today, and my idea of success is “make lots of money,” my next goal will be “make two million dollars.” The goalposts move every time we score. For example, if my eventual goal is “attend college,” my situational goals must be “get good grades,” followed by “don’t go to jail,” followed by “graduate high school.”
The definition of “achieving success” must therefore meet the following criteria:
- It must be specific to the individual.
- It must be situational.
- It must adapt and change over time.
- It must be realistic.
- It must take the individual in a positive direction.²
For a high school teacher, then, the definition of success might be, “Get through this school year with my sanity intact, ensure that most of the students pass, and not murder more than one or two of the douchebags in the class.” That’s a good, localized definition of success for that individual. It takes into account particular circumstances and sets clear, attainable goals.
Similarly, a definition of success for a drug addict might be, “Get clean, find a job, stay clean, and rebuild my credit score.” That’s a good, localized definition of success. It has obviously adapted to that individual’s circumstances and sets positive, realistic goals.
In contrast, a bad definition of success for a college graduate in this day and age is probably something like, “Earn $100,000 at age 22, live in my own 2,000 sq. ft. apartment, and date a Scarlett Johansson impersonator.” For the vast, vast majority of us that is simply neither achievable nor realistic, and is doomed to failure from the start.
A “Successful” Person
With this definition in mind, a “successful” person or a “successful” life is all about repeated successful episodes of goal achievement. A person who repeatedly meets their goals, or the majority of their goals, or even maybe just their one biggest goal, might be considered to have a successful life.
This isn’t science. There isn’t really a formula you can apply to pop out a judgement call. It’s subjective, individualist, case-by-case reasoning. But it’s at least better than the “if you don’t marry a person of the opposite gender, have 2.5 children, own a house and at least one car, work a specific kind of job, and attend church every Sunday, you’ve failed,” worldview. We don’t live in a homogeneous culture; we don’t have cookie-cutter lives; we shouldn’t expect a common definition of success.
¹Remember — culture is about conformity (even, or perhaps especially, non-conformist counter-culture; notice how all the hippies and goths dress alike). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It serves the purpose of in-group/out-group dynamics and provides a range of acceptable social mores, which are things society needs to foster a sense of group camaraderie. But it is about conformity, and therefore it is about control, and defying cultural expectations means becoming the out-group and breaking the normal standards of behavior, with the accompanying risk of social stigma.
²I know, I know… this one’s squishy. Fundamentally, though, it’s hard to argue that you’re achieving success if you’re starving, penniless, and disease-ridden, unless of course you’re doing it for art, religion, or patriotism. Work with me here.