Success, Failure and their many cousins

December 6, 2014 at 11:22 am

What does Success mean to us? Is failure just the absence of success? What would success feel like if it weren’t quantified? Our relationship with success and failure is a very personal one. If we don’t define what they mean to us, others will.


Penthrall Success and Failure

Image Courtesy Chris Potter

When I was in school, success was very well defined. It was celebrated in front of the whole class while failure was handed out circled in red ink with a remark for the parent, in case the marks didn’t opine the teacher’s position clearly enough. While above 90% was a success, failure had many cousins. Anything below 35% was a failure of course. Between 35 and 90% were varying levels of failure defined by the teacher, the school, my parents and my friends. My teacher had her well-defined brackets ranging from poor to good (yes just good was a kind of a failure too), with assorted levels of ‘average’ stacked in between. With my parents and friends these boundaries were hazy, but they were there.

As I worked my way through school I was aware of tags that were following me all the way. Tags like “Average student”, “Smart”, “Gifted”, “Lazy”. All of these formed the hazy boundaries within which success was defined. Success to me was an amalgamation of all these parameters. This trend continued after school, into college and work. The tags got added, as did the degrees and designations. I was segregatable based on the tags. I had certificates to help people predict my performance even before I started work.

Etymologically, success is derived from the Latin word succedere, which means, “to happen”. One of the definitions in our current day dictionaries maintains this old meaning: “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” But this is one of the many definitions that we have today. The more relevant ones today are:

  • The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.
  • A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

The diversion seen in its meaning should give us an idea of the weight we place on success today and the power it wields in our lives. A similar diversion can be seen with the word failure as well. Failure is derived from the French word “faillir“, which means, “to lack in”. This meaning continues to survive in our present day usage of ‘failing this’. Going by their Italian and French roots we can observe what Success and Failure were meant to denote: the happening or not happening of a particular activity. That was it. A prominent meaning of failure today is “to be unsuccessful”. Considering success is the achievement of fame, wealth and social status, we know what this lack could mean.

This deviation in definition is very important to notice because it makes two things glaringly explicit. One is that success and failure are the currency with which self-esteem and prestige can be purchased. Secondly, we don’t always define the parameters of our own success and failure. On most occasions, we exercise our choice by merely agreeing or disagreeing to parameters that have already been set for us. In more inclusive environments we may get to set these parameters but they will be suggested or recommended. Whatever be the case, success and failure have become multi-dimensional. Success is no longer a mere accomplishment of a goal; it is also a relative index of how well a goal has been accomplished, in comparison with others who have accomplished the same goal. Which means there is an element of failure hidden inside the accomplishment of the said goal. Is it a wonder that fear of failure is so prevalent? As long as there are medals awarded for success, shame is the natural companion that walks alongside failure.

This has a huge impact on what we choose to invest ourselves in. In school and college we studied what was in the syllabus, or prescribed by our teachers as important. At work, companies are weighed and compared by a universal scale of how well they pay and how prestigious a designation they can offer. Most of us have had the experience of quitting from at least one job, only to have your manager respond by enticing you with a hike, bonus or an opportunity that can bring both. What they are really doing for you is short-circuiting your path to success. All appraisals aside, this conversation should make it apparent what success to them and the organization means.

The rules are the same for everyone and so are the finish lines. This seems fair in school, but it is anything but fair. Something so flat and parameterized is no longer a game. It is a race. Equality doesn’t always breed fairness. It creates an environment where we believe success defined by the parameters set by the others, will bring us their appreciation, respect, approval and maybe even love. When success becomes all of this, failure naturally becomes shame. This serpentine relationship with approval and shame makes us soon start prostituting our needs for the wants of the community. We study to pass and we work to get a promotion. We start functioning like an organism more than an individual. Our behavior is predictable because our parameters of success are constant.

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.” – Bill Watterson

Success and failure are personal experiences and their parameters must be personal. We need to take back the authority that the society wields on us and define these parameters for ourselves. We also need to dissolve all the significance that accompanies both of these events. There is a morass of greasy emotions associated with these events that need to be divorced from them. It’s a cleansing process that is well worth the effort. We define what success is and we hold our esteem in high regard when it “happens”. What happened is what happened, it is not who we are.



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