How Do We Decide What Success Is?

If you are in the habit (like I am) of blowing by the videos embedded in blogs that you read, please don’t skip this one.  It’s quite engaging and only about 17 minutes long.

In this video, Alain de Botton talks about the definitions of success and failure in today’s society.  He raises a TON of issues that we don’t have time to dig into, so I’m going to pick just one.

He makes the following quote:

Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.

Can you really do anything you set your mind to?

That’s one of the things I was told growing up; I’m willing to bet a lot of other folks reading this were, too.  But is that really the case?  Have all the barriers been removed that hold us back?

I don’t think they have.  While great strides have been made in leveling the playing field for many people, there are still divisions that preclude some people from achieving.  I’m not talking about discrimination here.  Although bias based on gender or race or any number of other factors still exists in our world, it’s becoming harder and harder to point to this as a reason for not becoming “successful”.

What I’m talking about is what Warren Buffett has termed the “Ovarian Lottery”.  Here’s a quote:

I’ve had it so good in this world, you know.  The odds were fifty-to-one against me being born in the United States in 1930.  I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different.

Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic.  And the genie says to them, ‘One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh.  And if you wind up in Bangladesh, you will not pay taxes.  What percentage of your income would you bid to be the one that is born in the United States?’  It says something about the fact that society has something to do with your fate and not just your innate qualities.  The people who say, ‘I did it all myself.’ and think of themselves as Horatio Alger — believe me, they’d bid more to be in the United States than in Bangladesh.  That’s the Ovarian Lottery.

Warren Buffett, in “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder

Buffett talks about being born in America vs Bangladesh, but the Ovarian Lottery isn’t limited to location.  It can relate to economic advantages, genetics, anything.  Warren Buffett seems to think that at least some of his success isn’t attributable to ambition, or being smarter than everyone else, or working harder, but to the blind fortune of being born where he was at the time he was.

Many of us (myself included) would hope for an absolute meritocracy.  By that, I mean that nothing would play a part in success other than our willingness to earn it (whatever “earn it” means).  However, the implication of “the cream rises to the top” carries with it the converse statement: “those that don’t rise aren’t cream”.  But, according to Buffett, blind dumb luck plays a part in everyone’s success.

Is there a way we can cut through what we can’t control and determine what we will be successful at, regardless of circumstances that are beyond our control?

Most everyone would agree that a decent definition of success is achieving the goals that one sets for one’s self.  How you pick the targets you set for yourself is probably a more relevant question.

In fact, an even more relevant question is, do you even pick those targets?  Or do you allow others (friends, family, business associates, advertisers, celebrities) to tell you what you should be shooting for in order to be “successful”?

The key to success is ensuring the targets you’re shooting for are targets of your own choosing. If you strive to achieve goals that you’ve set for yourself, you’ll have the motivation to keep going until you achieve them.  That’s just the way it works.  If something is important to you, luck becomes less and less of a factor.

Sure, there are things in life that you can’t change.  For instance, someone who’s lost a leg can’t hope to win a track and field gold medal at the Olympics.  That doesn’t mean that they’re destined for failure, though.  Those individuals who are truly successful, as trite as it sounds, make lemonade of life’s lemons.

However, if you’re trying to find contentment by keeping up with the Jones’, or doing something someone else says will make you “a winner”, or bemoaning the factors that keep you from doing one thing or another, then you’re not going to be successful.  It won’t matter whether you actually reach that goal or not.  You’ll flit from activity to activity, achievement to achievement.  There will always be “something else” out there, and you’ll eventually wind up unfulfilled.

So define success the way YOU want to, not the way someone else tells you you should.  Choose goals that resonate deep down inside of you.  Overcoming the obstacles that life puts in your path can only happen if you’re truly passionate about what you’re trying to achieve.

3 thoughts on “How Do We Decide What Success Is?”

  1. There is definitely an importance to not judging others by our own or especially by the media's interpretation of success. We do not know what their journey is about. I definitely hate it when people start off a conversation with "what do you do?", I've been looking for more creative answers, such as innovation.

    The thing about meritocratic society being impossible once we have decided to not judge others by the medias or even our own standards is that if we relinquish the responsibility for who we are, than what is it that makes us not animals? Morality is only possible where there is a choice. Success is only possible where there is a difficulty. We definitely need to find our own personal answers for what success is, however, if I relinquish responsibility for who I am, than I would not be able to see the point in even trying to improve.

    And to clarify we can do anything, just not everything.

  2. Another thought-provoking post, Jason. Thank you! I think one thing I've experienced as I've watched my 7-year-old son grow up is to watch how children set goals/state desires and how that changes over time. As a 4-year-old, goals tended to revolve around security, happiness, companionship. As he's gotten older, he's started to impose grander ideas success, being not just a baseball player but the BEST baseball player, the KING of baseball! In that I see where my ideas of what was desirable began to change toward the impossible. As a woman, I feel like I've lived in a little bubble of hope that I could have everything: healthy, happy family; loving spouse; rewarding and valuable career; intellectual satisfaction; spacious and stylish home. I realize now that those goals really ARE unattainable for me (and, I'd hazard a guess, anyone else) but what do they represent? Health (got it, knock wood), happy family (ditto), loving spouse (you bet), societal acknowledgment and validation (well, that's one I need to parse out a bit more)…you get the idea. I think I am realigning my goals to be more elemental than tangible. I want goals that are consistent with my core values. But first, I have to be clear on what my core values are. It may turn out that something I thought was a goal was just not as important as I thought! Thanks again…good fodder for thoughts while I walk.

    1. I wrote a lot about that very concept, Jen, in my Life Design series here:

      But, you're very right: goals that require achieving tangible things aren't always about the things themselves, but what they represent. There may be many ways to achieve our goals. It requires us to work within the framework provided to us via the Ovarian Lottery to find how to get to where we want to go, and not allow others to dictate "Oh, you want that? This is the one and only way to get there, and if you don't do it this way, you're a loser". That statement is a clear fallacy.

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