Thursday, August 13, 2015

Success & its Anticedents OR Why "Successful People" Don't Post Inspirational Memes

Last night, the boys of Modern Suspects and myself had a quick laugh over this meme:

This morning, I woke up thinking about it. Not just laughing about it anymore, but thinking about it. So, here we are.

Now, on the most basic level, I get it. This is supposed to be funny in a cynical, "I'm cooler than inspirational memes" kind of way. It's supposed to imply a wink and a smile at the notion of being tapped into what's really going on: namely, that successful people don't post inspirational memes because they don't need them, and that the people who do actually take the time to share these kinds of ideas are those with some sort of desperate need to believe that they're not missing the boat or that life isn't passing them by.

But here's the deal.

I couldn't help but think this morning that if the idea that "successful people" have no time for inspiration or encouragement or philosophy happens to be true, then that fact says a lot more about "successful people" than it does about anyone else.

Consider the following points:

1. Success is not greatness. Every great philosophy, religion, worldview, & moral system known to man warns people of the dangers of success, the pitfalls of making money the goal of your life, and the importance of others over and above one's own achievements. We have all heard since we were old enough to listen that money does not equal happiness and that success creates as many problems as it solves. We can all think of dozens and dozens of examples of things that are juvenile, boring, poorly-made, and generally terrible that have become massively, wildly, & inexplicably successful. Something - a movie, a book series, a musical artist, what have you - generating a lot of money in the marketplace does not mean that that thing is in any way artistically viable or great. We can all recall stories of people who made millions of dollars and sat at the top of the heap who were infamous for being braggarts, jerks, divas, or in any number of ways despicable people. Making a lot of money in no way means that you are a good, great, or even decent person. No matter how hard we may fight the idea, we simply cannot get away from the truth that "success" is in no way an undeniable indicator of goodness - moral, artistic, commercial, or personal. Things that are successful are not necessarily things to be admired and people that are successful are not necessarily people to be imitated. We all need to check our tendency to conflate successful things with good things.

2. Success is driven more by exterior circumstances than by personal strength. I recently heard an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he was recalling his rise to fame. He spoke about his bodybuilding career and his beginning in movies and how he was able to use people's negativity to fuel him toward success. Along the way, he recalled an instance when James Cameron (who wrote & directed The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day, some of history's all-time biggest & best action flicks) was quoted as saying, "When it came time to do Terminator, if Arnold didn't exist, we would have had to build him." The point was, simply, that Schwarzenegger was born to play that role and was integral to both the film's and the character's massive success. As history has shown, he was the right guy at the right place at the right time. But, think about that for a moment. There was no way Schwarzenegger could've known that he was going to be the right guy at that precisely right place at that precisely right time. How could he have even known of the existence of James Cameron, let alone that Cameron had written The Terminator script? How could he have made sure that the film would get green-lit by a studio? How could he have known that audiences would receive it with such enthusiasm? How could he be sure that Cameron, even with his great idea, would be the kind of filmmaker that could even pull off making the movie in a way that would make sense and serve to launch him into the stratosphere of movie stardom? The point is simply this: with all of his hard work, preparation and dedication, there was still no way Arnold Schwarzenegger could ever have known that the planets would align at just the right time and in just the right way for things to work out for him the way that they did. And, given all of that, there was certainly no way he could have caused any of it to occur. Other things over which he had absolutely no control - people, circumstances, ideas, cultural trends, etc. - had to be just the way they were for him to reap those incredible benefits. Bottom line: there are truisms about the keys to success & patterns by which we can structure our lives to move us in a successful direction. I mentioned a few before, things likes dedication, perseverance, hard work, & resilience. But those things do not magically force success to happen. Plenty of hard working people never end up as successful as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plenty of dedicated people never reach the heights of riches & fame. Plenty of talented people are never afforded the same opportunities as their less-talented, less-driven, and less-capable counterparts. The hard but simple truth is that there is no equation to life - there is no formula that guarantees anything, never mind massive success. And, when we do find examples of hugely successful people, what we find happens to do more with the things over which they had no control. The idea that we make our own luck or create our own success is simply and demonstrably not true.

3. Be careful how you define "success". The meme tells us that successful people don't post inspirational memes. But just what is a "successful" person? Who defines that? I believe the joke is supposed to reside in the idea that success here happens to be of the financial sort: they've hit it big through their job, through business or some other kind of commercial enterprise. But is that kind of success a truly apt definition of the idea? As we've mentioned before, not all commercially or financially successful people are worth admiring or imitating. But, in addition to that, many of the things that lead people to that kind of success are precisely the kids of things that cause them to be unsuccessful in other arenas of life. There are certain kinds of jobs that offer financial rewards through avenues of workaholism and the ignoring of one's family & friends. There are certain jobs that promise success through dedication to one's body or athleticism or skill or talent with no regard for the soul, mind, or internal life. There are certain roads to success that lead through deceit, cheating, or stepping on others to get ahead. If financial success is the greatest definition of the term, what does that mean for all of these examples? Is "success" worth being successful if it means lying to people, taking advantage of them, or sabotaging one's own spiritual growth in order to achieve it? We may joke about how "successful" people don't bother taking the time to share encouraging insight, deep thought, or philosophical truth with others via their social media platforms because they're too busy networking, crunching numbers, or getting work done, but what might those people be losing if they've shut off the part of themselves that seeks out those deeper things? Is a "successful" person truly successful if he's become a terrible spouse, an absent parent, or a philosophical moron along the way?

~ ~ ~

Look, the point of it all goes something like this: maybe our assumption that the ultimate goal of our lives should be financial/commercial/marketplace success is a bit skewed. Don't get me wrong: I want a successful career. I really do want to be able to support my family and enjoy some of the choicer things in life through music and perhaps, one day, writing. But I don't want to sacrifice the more human, spiritual, and beautiful parts of my life in order to achieve it. I don't want to pretend that truth doesn't matter or that encouraging other people in their own journeys along the way isn't a good use of my time. Perhaps there's value in struggle. Perhaps there's real, tangible value in not being successful. Perhaps there are things that "successful people" are missing out on precisely because they've become successful - perhaps their journey toward success has blinded them to some very beautiful & true realities. Perhaps the assumption that "success" necessarily means a person has it all together is as errant & wrong as the notion that success magically creates a wonderfully perfect world full of nothing but happiness and sunshine and rainbows.

In my own career, out of all the things a person could theoretically fire me for, I have never once been booted off a gig or out of a band for being encouraging. I have never once been replaced for thinking deeply or for wanting to share beauty with people. I have, however, been fired multiple times over money - for having the audacity to ask for what I had previously been promised. What does that tell you?

So, instead of laughing at people that post inspirational quotes & memes, perhaps we should be more concerned about the people patting themselves on the back for not doing so. Perhaps we should wonder about all of the things they're missing out on if they indeed have traded "success" for all of those precious truths & ideas that lead to spiritual and personal growth. Perhaps we should stop elevating money to the highest platform on the dais of success & begin to realize that there is more to life than making it, and that making it has more to do with things we can't control than the things we can. Perhaps one's ability to recognize the beauty in a sunset, a true & timeless quote, or the embrace of struggle is, in and of itself, a sign of true success.

So, lastly, here's a quote meme that has meant a lot to me lately and, I hope, strikes a note of encouragement for you today:


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