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:
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.
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.
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?