Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Musings on the Different Types of Success

One of you (TodayWendy, I think) recommended the book The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. I finished it awhile ago, and I liked it. If I remember correctly (never a safe bet), TodayWendy said it was interesting, but that she didn't love it. That pretty much sums up my opinion, too. I am glad I read it, but I didn't love it. I found his arguments interesting and convincing- to a point. I think he under plays the importance of pessimists. Yes, as he says, the optimists (of which I consider myself one) are correct that mankind generally innovates its way out of problems, but the pessimists have a role to play in pointing out what those problems are. And in making us all take the problems seriously enough to focus on the solutions.

He also writes in a mostly persuasive style, which always annoys me, because it makes me suspect that the wool is being pulled over my eyes. I prefer a more even-handed style, because then I feel like I'm learning things.

Still, it was an interesting book. And- completely unrelated to its thesis- it helped me solidify some thoughts that had been kicking around in my head about success. One of the central points in the book is that the marketplace is where ideas "have sex"- or cross-pollinate, to use the more usual and less graphic terminology. Ridley argues that this cross-pollination is in large part responsible for the continuing improvement of the lot of humanity- we mix and match ideas to solve new problems.

The book argues a lot of other things, too, including that the exchange of the marketplace is what has raised our living standards, but those things aren't relevant to the topic I want to discuss, which is about what we mean when we say someone is successful. Thinking about how we might solve the big problems that face us (like cancer, climate change, racism), and how Ridley argues we've solved such problems in the past (largely via the motivation and idea exchange offered by the marketplace), clarified my thinking on success.

I've been thinking that there are three general types of success:

1. Biological 
This is the most fundamental, and yet most optional form of success. Biological success is quite simply producing offspring who go on to produce offspring (who go on to produce offspring, etc., etc).  Note that this is not really my definition- it is a rough summary of the formal definition of biological fitness. I don't have a lot more to say about this, except to note that I don't actually think someone who does not have biological success is a failure. One of the great things about humans is that we have, to a certain extent, transcended our biology in this regard. There are actually a lot of interesting scientific theories about altruism and kin effect and all that... but I prefer to just think that we have learned how to work for the benefit of all humanity, even if we don't have any progeny in the gene pool.

2. Societal
Speaking of working for the benefit of all humanity... the second type of success is the one that The Rational Optimist got me thinking about, namely success in creating new ideas that benefit humankind. These may be practical (like Velcro- I don't care what TED talk givers say, I think Velcro is awesome) or theoretical, and they may occur in any field, not just the science and engineering fields we usually think about when we think "innovation." A desire for this form of success is what drives my ambitions. For me, and many others, it can best be summed up by a feeling of wanting to leave the world a better place for having been in it. For others, it is a desire for status, usually in the form of money and/or prestige. And I'll be honest, while a desire to be rich isn't driving my ambitions, a desire not to be poor certainly plays a role, and I'm not immune to the lure of prestige.

For men, it has always been accepted that societal success can increase biological success, but for women the two are often set up as being in competition. I don't think that is necessarily true, particularly if you look across many years and acknowledge the role that a mother's societal success can play in helping her children to thrive. The book Mother Nature has some really interesting insights in this regard, which I will have to come back and explore more thoroughly some day. For now I'll just say that even among apes, there is no one single way to be a successful mother.

3. Personal
I don't necessarily think that everyone who has achieved societal success has a great life, and that is because I think there is a third form of success, which is in many ways more important than the other two combined. I've called this "personal success." This is the form of success that comes from inside, from considering your life in all of its aspects and being happy with it.  Unfortunately, achieving happiness can be really difficult. The combination of biological success, societal success, and je ne sais quoi that will make someone happy differs from person to person, so no one can give you "the one true blueprint" for living a happy life. Even if they could, life wouldn't necessarily cooperate- think, for instance, of people who really want children and discover that they cannot have them, or people who find they have a serious illness that prevents them from chasing their long held dream of a certain type of societal success.

Also, the impact of the rest of society on our ability to achieve happiness can be large. The "mommy wars" and related nonsense are obviously one example of this impact, but I've also been thinking a lot about the pressure to achieve a narrow form of societal success (usually, attaining status within a single career), as I have recently realized that my career, as it is currently formulated, is not optimizing my happiness and have started to explore the possible reasons for that. I plan to come back and write more on that topic soon, but for today's post the key point is just that personal success is not necessarily the easiest form of success to achieve, even though it may seem to be the form over which we have the most control.

Still, personal success is what I want more than anything else. Yes, I really do think that being happy is the most important thing in life. I do not think there is only one way to achieve personal success, though, even for one person. For me, motherhood is part of what makes me happy now, but I can imagine happy lives I could have led if children hadn't been in the cards for me. I think some sort of societal success is necessary for me to be happy, but as I've been thinking about my next career steps, I've been surprised to find how many different types of next moves sound compatible with happiness. I'd say the ability to travel is an important component of happiness for me, too, but if pushed, I can actually imagine a happy life with no travel whatsoever. Figuring this all out is hard, but for me, it has helped to remember that there are multiple possible solutions. I don't need to optimize all the parameters, I just need to get them all within their allowable ranges.

What do you think? Have I captured all of the forms of success? Which matters most to you? Do you find it easy or hard to figure out what makes you happy?


  1. I would encourage thinking about happiness (or success) not in terms of optimization but in terms of satisficing (or satisfaction). The very act of trying to optimize our happiness leads us to never being satisfied. But if we have a bar for "good enough" we're much more likely to achieve ultimate happiness. (And don't take it from me-- take it from Barry Schwartz: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/satisficing-as-a-life-philosophy/)

    p.s. love the label

    1. Good point. I tried to explain the concept of satisficing to my husband recently and failed miserably. Maybe I'll send him your blog post! I eventually got the point I was trying to make across with the idea of allowable ranges on the various parameters in the problem we were solving, though.

    2. My husband LOVED the book. It made a definite change in the way he looked at things, I think because it really does fit in with the way engineers think.

  2. Frankly, I think that personal success is the hardest to achieve, at least for me. Because it depends on so very many factors over which I don't have much, if any, control (but for which I have a great deal of responsibility). For me to be happy, I need to be not miserable in my job, have a decent relationship with my husband and family, my children have to be content, the finances have to be in balance (a huge thing for anybody who grew up poor), etc. etc. etc.

    I might be able to INFLUENCE some of these factors, but not to a great degree. So personal happiness has always been elusive. Thanks for making me think about how to change that.

  3. This might sound weird, but I don't find the concept of success all that interesting/ important to me. That is, I don't generally think of my life in terms of success (whether biological, social, or personal, but especially not the latter), I think mostly because success feels like to me a concept that requires comparison. I know that's not necessarily true - that one can say, ok here's my bar where I feel like I need to be personally to be satisfied with my life, and that's about looking inward instead of outward. There's just something about the word that I resist, on a visceral level. Then again, I'm not all that interested in happiness either. Which is not to say I'm interested in misery - mostly because misery is often a *helpless* place to be, and I tend to be impatient with helplessness and passivity. I think it's the idea of achieving a *goal* in life that I resist. Basically, I went through a period (most of my 20s really) that was incredibly unhappy, through no fault of my own. Sometimes grief, real sorrow, finds you and getting out of its grip cannot be done through willpower, or even willpower + medication + therapy. It was hard and that was that. Trying to become happy wasn't helping, so instead I tried to figure out what mattered to me, because I wanted my life to have *meaning* (I guess that's my version of satisfaction? I think I have a really low bar!) rather than happiness. So I figured out ways to have a meaningful life in ways that reflected my deepest values and didn't have anything to do with things society generally recognizes as success. There are things that cause me more or less stress, and I try to change things that are changeable, but of course, as @Jadzia writes, there are so many factors that are difficult (even impossible) to control, and yet we can't let ourselves be at the mercy of those things. For me, what has meaning is what's left behind when all the externals (job, finances, spouse, children) are stripped away (not necessarily literally).

  4. @Jadzia, @Erin- I really should work on tightening up how I write about happiness. Last time I wrote on the topic, I got some people really mad at me, so you'd think I'd have learned. But I didn't!

    I primarily think of maximizing happiness as the difference I can make given the background I have to work with. So, given the situation presented to me by all the things I cannot control, what things that I CAN control would make me happier?

    There was a time period in college when some fairly unpleasant things were happening. I was nowhere near as happy then as I am now, when most things in my life are pretty good. But I still made decisions by thinking about what would make me happiest. This is another case where I take the constant and/or randomness as a given, and look primarily at the variables I can control. I think in general, I do a very poor job of explaining that outlook (I think this is what has caused some of my problems on chores discussion on other people's blogs, for instance). I should probably try to write up that general mindset at some point, when I'm in the mood to accept the consequences if it pisses people off!

    Anyway, I hope that makes sense. And I certainly don't want to minimize the impact of bad things that happen- I do get that sometimes crappy stuff just happens and makes you unhappy.

    @Erin- it is interesting that you look for meaning. I've generally given up worrying/caring about the meaning in life. I've been reading some career self help books lately (another post in the wings!) and therefore have been reading a lot about choosing your values, etc. I think this is an area in which it is easy to forget that other people may- in fact probably do- think very differently than I do. What you value is so central to your outlook, it really requires stretching your imagination to truly understand someone else's values.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting!

  5. @Cloud - I should probably add that while I'm a spiritual person, "meaning" to me isn't something grand - but a life of emotional richness (ie, not being afraid and living an emotionally small life) and integrity.

    I see what you mean about happiness and what you can control. I had an experience where the whole concept of happiness (even within the variables that one can and cannot control) sort of failed me, so I constructed something else that worked better for me. But I don't really think it's all that different from what you're saying - I just explain to myself with different words.

    1. I get what you're saying. And I agree- I think we probably have pretty similar approaches, with different words and a slightly different focus.

  6. I posted on my site because my answer's really quirky...but boy happiness is something I've spent time distilling down. The link is here: http://www.multiplicity.ca/blog/2012/04/19/pursuit-of-happiness/

    1. I really liked your post. Thanks for linking to it!

  7. For me, I think personal success is the "easiest" to achieve. Biological success can easily be outside the realm of your control. As far as work, I never achieved a powerful, impressive career. Personal success, to me, is the only one that is most within your own control

    I think what makes people unhappy is the need for societal approval and outside validation, because that creates either a constant need to keep up or dissatisfaction if you don't get that applause. You have to become good at tuning out other people's expectations and definitions of success before you achieve true happiness. At the same time, I admit that I'm not a super happy person even if I feel super self-aware of what makes me happy!

  8. I was the one who suggested you read Rational Optimist - at least partly because I was curious about what your reaction to it would be. I absolutely loved the first half of it, and then gradually became more and more irritated as I read the second half.

    I really love your thoughts on success. I think one of the things that is happening lately is that people are coming to realize that Personal Success as you've defined it is really a thing, and that it is possible to pay less attention to the first two. Lots of people are choosing not to have children, and even more are choosing non-traditional careers, or taking time off from jobs to go do things which are personally but not financially rewarding. Which is helped along by the internet - when you can connect with a group of people who share your values, it really helps give you the courage to follow your own path even when the people close to you don't understand.


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