Defining the terms of ‘Success’

douglas-coupland-monroeGraduates: dream big, but not for yourself …. As an applicant from one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, the clean sweep of As, a plethora of extra-curricular and volunteer activities, and the dual titles of democratically elected Head Girl and academically selected Dux made references laden with words like ‘struggle’ and ‘deprived’ the cherry on top of a successful application to Harvard University, aged 16. The first of my family to begin university, I was reared on the aspiration and ambition from Thatcher to Blair—work hard enough, and you’ll get all the success you deserve.

Aspiration, ambition, success, dreams, career: words which at 16, held all the promise for a future waiting to be built.

Now, they stick in my throat like naive vulgarities, corrupted and shot through with the ‘me first’ culture of our society.

As a graduating student, I have seen hordes of friends and acquaintances turn from philanthropic visions to orient instead to the money-making machines of corporations and finance. Friends who opted into the facile and repetitive manoeuvrings of the grind, and out of the blueprints of dreams they had been daubing and drafting since childhood.

But to say that students should instead simply ‘follow their dreams’ is a miscalculated address to the struggle facing every graduate and young person today in our increasingly chaotic world, whether they’re renewing their contract at Goldman Sachs, or working night shifts in service to afford creative pursuits.

To ‘follow your dreams’ is now a cliché of a cliché, rolling off the tongue like some overplayed radio hit. So easy to rally around, but what does it actually mean? What if those dreams bubbled to boiling point in the very primordial soup of capitalist hegemony, where the only clothes we can afford are made in sweat shops and the only food we can afford were plucked from the hands of an exploited farmer?

A world stagnant with inequality presents each of us with widely diverging access to ‘dreams’; while the system works impeccably smoothly for a few, the labyrinth of ‘opportunity’ is a blind navigation for most. We must divorce ourselves from the dangerous fable that hard work alone achieves dreams, and not the connections, identity or charisma we happen to luck into. ‘Following dreams’ is implicitly privileged.

More importantly, to pretend that the majority of us have complete agency in what we worship eludes the reality of our society, which chases a carrot of success defined by wealth and prestige, and where competition and inequality are the foundational blocks of aspiration. To counteract the gravitational pull of accoutrements of distinction is to reject a lifetime of cultured instinct. Very few have the privilege of recognising this myth, and even fewer have the capacity to actualise the necessary changes.

Even the phrase ‘follow your dreams’ positions the individual and the will for their own desires as sacrosanct, with no footnote on which dreams qualify, and who we can fuck over to get there. Isn’t this exact ideology what got us in this mess in the first place, where a few self-serving people decide their dreams are worth the sacrifices of others?

The pathogenic combination of all three; inequality, capitalism and a voracious individualism; turns the innocently uttered advice to simply ‘follow your dreams’ into the signifier carrier of a deadly signified.

As a new graduate, I experienced this plot twist as the most gut-wrenching dupe. What path do you follow when they all seem steeped in the fallout of entrenched neoliberalism—even the alma mater which granted me so many opportunities funded me with fossil fuel investments.
Oscillating between disgust and awe at my teenage self’s thirst for recognition defined by someone else’s approval and someone else’s success, I worry for my wee sister and the path she’s already gracefully tracing. When invited to address pupils at my old high school about ‘success’, I realise that I too am an accessory to the abhorrent myth that accolades and jobs are ends in themselves; the sum total of our value as human beings. And the fetishisation of stories such as mine, where an individual did in fact luck out, only serves to legitimise the inequality inherent in the system—they did it, so why can’t you? Try harder.

We need to radically restructure our society in order to remedy the gross injustice of children sentenced to inadequacy either because they will never have the system in the palm of their hand, or because they believe that the transcendental powers of ‘education’ will give them the dreams they so deserve. And we must begin today by actively stripping back our understanding of ‘success’, and reframing it as something we achieve together.

What if we told our children that wellbeing and happiness were worth aspiring to, or that love was the most valuable thing we have? Imagine a society where children aren’t faced with the abstract quotas teachers are increasingly forced to implement, and instead are nurtured by a recognition that grades are only one part of a healthy mind. And what if we really radicalised our maxims, and taught our children that their dreams should respond to the needs of our planet.

Aspire to global equality. Ambitiously fight for your communities. Achieve the dream of being loved and loving another wholly and relentlessly. Opt out of their definitions of ‘success’ and opt in to being alive and human and free. And struggle every day to reject the insult that you are only as important as the career you choose to pursue. You are more than the conglomerate parts of your CV, but there’s a big old world waiting to be fixed, and it’s time we put that first.

Comments (13)

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  1. Lincoln Powell says:

    Interesting, well written article. But.

    “The first of my family to begin university”

    Me too. I’m not from Coatbridge, but from the fag-end of an industrial town in central Scotland, so no silver spoon for me either. And I’m in my forties. I’m guessing what we have in common is that our “working class” parents ‘got it’ about education, and encouraged and supported us in that.

    “work hard enough, and you’ll get all the success you deserve”

    Alongside good parents and in fairness, good advice, and a little bit of luck thrown in – that is an absolute truism. My wife comes from a similar background, but every effort and spare penny went into her education, and now she, like you, as a hospital consultant is one of the brightest and the best (I’m not so academic and in fairness not so hard-working. I’ll be trying to make sure my son doesn’t make the same mistakes as me)

    “As a graduating student, I have seen hordes of friends and acquaintances turn from philanthropic visions to orient instead to the money-making machines of corporations and finance etc. etc.”

    That might be want they wanted – or needed – and they may be very happy. You can’t seriously be saying that you know for a fact that they all aren’t.

    “capitalist hegemony”

    Oh dear. You’re not proposing Socialism are you? The forms of state-regulated capitalism found in advanced liberal democracies (inc. the nordic utopian social democracies – they are not ‘socialist’, at all) have always provided a better quality of life and standard of living than any of the socialist experiments – which have generally been disastrous, and some have killed millions, sometimes deliberately.

    (Rash prediction: someone will say “it will be better next time”)

    “where the only clothes we can afford are made in sweat shops”

    Really, everyone? (This is not to diminish this, the reasons for which are many and complex)

    “the only food we can afford were plucked from the hands of an exploited farmer?”

    I find Aldi very affordable. Is all of their stuff plucked from the hands of exploited farmers? I’m off there in a bit, I might have to ask them …

    “A world stagnant with inequality”

    Global inequality is falling as capitalism continues to lift millions out of poverty. (Sure, there is increasing inequality between nations and within some nations, but global inequality and poverty are falling)

    “We must divorce ourselves from the dangerous fable that hard work alone achieves dreams”

    My wife decided she wanted to be a doctor when she was 12. Her family came from a working class background with no advantages. Now she is a doctor. Through hard work, determination, a supportive family, and taking advantage of our excellent education system (some state, some private). The state part, which all things being relative is excellent, is free you know – all you have to do is turn up.

    “and not the connections, identity or charisma we happen to luck into.”

    My parents (esp. my father – mum had the traditional ‘role’ of ‘housewife’ when we were young, returned to work later) did not have any ‘connections’. And he went from working class to now very comfortably well off – though his own hard work. (He is quite charismatic and charming though. Charm is an important thing – manners, being able to relate to people, establishing yourself in a context that people can understand, etc.)

    “‘Following dreams’ is implicitly privileged.”

    Nonsense. Defeatist nonsense.

    “To counteract the gravitational pull of accoutrements of distinction is to reject a lifetime of cultured instinct. Very few have the privilege of recognising this myth,”

    Eh, getting a bit carried away with yourself now. I think you need to give people a bit more credit for understanding the world around them, their agency and their capacity to change their own worlds. We do live in one of the wealthiest advanced western liberal democracies in the worl here. The opportunities people have – compared to some places – are tremendous. Witness the lengths that people from all corners of the world are prepared to go to to get here.

    “Inequality”

    I’d just like to point out that inequality exists everywhere, including in the ‘model societies’ of the nordic utopias. You will never eradicate inequality, its causes are too many and complex.

    “And the fetishisation of stories such as mine, where an individual did in fact luck out, only serves to legitimise the inequality inherent in the system—they did it, so why can’t you?”

    Do you really think you ‘lucked out’? It just sound to me like you did very well for yourself.

    “We need to radically restructure our society”

    How? Into what? Not Socialism, please.

    “to remedy the gross injustice of children sentenced to inadequacy either because they will never have the system in the palm of their hand, or because they believe that the transcendental powers of ‘education’ will give them the dreams they so deserve”

    If children work hard, and are supported by their families, and take advantage of our amazing education system, good things will happen – I promise and guarantee it.

    “And we must begin today by actively stripping back our understanding of ‘success’, and reframing it as something we achieve together”

    What does that actually mean?

    (Rash prediction: someone will say “if you don’t understand what this (opaque, unqualified) phrase means you never will, you are a lost cause etc. etc.)

    I’m genuinely interested to understand that that actually MEANS.

    “What if we told our children that wellbeing and happiness were worth aspiring to, or that love was the most valuable thing we have?”

    My child will be told that – by us, by his parents. (And we’ll tell him that going hand in hand with this is education, which will open the door to the world for him)

    “Imagine a society where children aren’t faced with the abstract quotas teachers are increasingly forced to implement, and instead are nurtured by a recognition that grades are only one part of a healthy mind.”

    Sure. Those grades are still damn important, mind.

    “Aspire to global equality.”

    Already happening. Global inequality is falling (see above).

    “Ambitiously fight for your communities.”

    What does that mean?

    “Achieve the dream of being loved and loving another wholly and relentlessly.”

    Do people in Scotland need independence or some such for that?

    “Opt out of their definitions of ‘success’”

    Who are ‘they’? And notwithstanding that, why? Because you say so?

    “And struggle every day to reject the insult that you are only as important as the career you choose to pursue.”

    Who is saying this? I’m not big shot, by my wife always wanted to be a doctor, and it IS intrinsically a part of who she is now. Are you telling me this really shouldn’t matter?

    “there’s a big old world waiting to be fixed, and it’s time we put that first.”

    How are you going to fix it? Do you have an actual plan?

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Mark Norris says:

      Thought provoking article and good challenge in return. I run my own small company and absolutely support free enterprise and aspiration for all but also with state support/intervention to give everyone the same life chances. That’s why I support a lot of what the SNP government is doing in education, the minimum wage and freeing up land ownership. With good Government as a platform we should absolutely encourage individual ambition and achievement in education and business to build Scotland’s future.

    2. Robert says:

      Lincoln, it’s easy to pick holes in an argument. Not so easy to put together an “actual plan” or even a set of principles for right living — something very few of us have on emerging from university (where we mostly learn to say what our teachers like to hear). Still working on it myself after more than twenty years. The author may not have got everything straightened out yet, but I’ve no doubt she is on the right path.

      Doing the right thing in your life is a constant struggle because the prevailing wind in our society is always blowing in the other direction, towards individualism, greed and callousness. Until the wind changes all we can do is keep pushing on in the teeth of the gale.

      But there are signs that the wind may be changing, in Scotland at least. Let’s hope so.

    3. barakabe says:

      Lincoln one must assume that your reply is written with the purpose of advancing deliberate obfuscation & rationalization- its fairly obvious the writer is referring to the experiences young peoples confront within corporate structures in a global context- but you counter it by mentioning a pithy anecdote of how someone ( your wife) deciding to become a doctor, such a rare event for a 12 year old child knowing what they want to do with the rest of their life ( never mind being a doctor)- this makes it very difficult to use such an exceptional occurrence as a means of opening general debate that best approximates to most peoples experience. Exceptions do not counter the prevailing pattern of general rules. You go onto promote your own brand of American Functionalist Meritocracy that is so often propagated by right-wing conservatives ( aka the weary old tale of Horatio Alger- & all those immigrants coming with a dollar in their pocket etc) that it is embarrassing when competently clever people pay lipservice to some new fangled form of this myth. Just because some people get a break for some unknown reason & succeed
      does not ameliorate all the inequality, injustice & corruption in the world.
      People from a lower class of society have to deal with living in more complex environments that involve violence, gangs, crime, drug-alcohol abuse, deprivation-poverty just to name a few compared with their middle class counterparts- these upper class counterparts also use their class connections to operate an exclusionary ‘closed shop’ in many professions. This is just basic reality. There is also the problem that the lower classes have to work much harder to overcome all these obstacles as well as simply being better at whatever they choose to do in life in comparison to those from higher social classes- & even then they have to hope they get a break. Being born into a deprived household in somewhere like Easterhouse is akin to starting an 800 metre race 200 metres behind a middle class competitor & with one leg tied to a weight.
      As for your benevolent vision of capitalism: how many millions does Capitalism kill every year? You say capitalism pulls people out of poverty. Utter hogwash. It exploits billions of people every day for poverty wages- there is nothing benevolent about capitalism as it is a fundamentally exploitative system. The writer is aspiring to a model that incorporates a vision of human life beyond vulgar quotidian of me-mine politics. I have no doubt that a hundred years hence people will look back with utter bewilderment & think: these refined barbarians had knowledge, science, technology, even the expertise and yet they had this barbaric self-limiting system that was based on mutual exploitation & reduced all life to monetary profit. But I’m sure your self-assured bourgeois complacency can somehow rationalize your cosy vision of capitalism with global warming, industrial pollution, third world starvation, rising inequality-poverty, a growing war-arms industry, the hyper-concentration of vast wealth in elite economic groups…the success of modern society has happened in opposition to capitalist hegemony: it is we the people who have advanced progress in human rights, knowledge, social justice etc against the increasingly dictatorial power of private capitals elite class.

    4. Airconditioned says:

      Your arguments seem to be based on the fact that someone has the support and advice of their parents- this is not always the case. What about those that are orphans or have, for a multitude of reasons, no guidance from their family? It’s a far more difficult position to work from.

      Also connections still play an active part in Scottish society with nepotism alive and well. Someone from a working class background will struggle to achieve what can be deemed a standard of success without these connections.

      I think the main point that you are missing though Lincoln is that the author is writing about a different generation to your own. You need to look at the socio economic situation of today rather than yesterday. The achievements of your parents were from a different era. Also no doubt your wife was entitled to a university grant rather than having to weigh up the option of taking out a substantial student loan which could cripple a person for a significant amount of time.

      Also to say inequality will never be eradicated is such a defeatist attitude and bordering on the ridiculous. How do you know what is achievable in the future?

      I thought it was a good article with some valid points.

    5. Bill Halliday says:

      http://climateandcapitalism.com/2014/09/01/great-poverty-reduction-hoax/

      Amazingly Westminster too has chosen to “re-define” Poverty to be able to claim to be reducing it.

  2. barakabe says:

    A very mature article that is very well written. Lets hope many heed your words.
    In my experience most intelligent people outgrow materialism fairly early in life ( one of the burdens of true intelligence is living in a world dominated by shallow vulgarization)- the problem with materialists is they think everyone is the same as them & so all people are the same ( no qualitative but only a quantitative judgement based on how big your desire is & how much wealth you have)- & so they cannot ( they do not possess the capacity) recognize the quality of anyone outside what they materially possess. Gandhi said the measure of a civilized society is how it treats the most vulnerable- but another standard is what we teach our children & what capacities do we want them to acquire? We have a system that actively excludes the development of an active questioning of everything in children ( children possess a natural genius for this that we too often destroy by compromising it to manageable mediocrity) so that more experience becomes transparent to them ( & they are less open to manipulation). Too many inadequate people ( who long ago buried any integrity-originality to ‘get ahead’) are in prominent positions in organizations & so corrupt ( full of their own self-importance) that they infect our youth with their own mediocrity.
    That brings us back to quantification: money is used as a value of measurement of everything from individual success (How much money do you make?) or an enterprise ( how much profit has it made?)- if we use this type of materialistic reductionism to measure the value of human life then by definition we exclude large aspects of the human condition ( often more subtle- sophisticated- refined & more important aspects of experience). But the upside of it is for superificalists to who accept this crude reductionism is that despite art, culture, human relationships, nature, all reduced to secondary status, is that it makes life very simple, reassuringly so for those who like life to be manageable, predictable, measurable & ultimately controllable- the problem for these superficialists is that reality is not obedient to such simple reductionism & that in itself brings a whole load of difficulties ( that is something this shallow type of utilitarianism cannot reconcile with its modelling).

  3. colin says:

    It was Kinnock who first,(as far as I’m aware, spouted the “first in my family” line.

    It meant nothing then, just as it means nothing today.

    Scotland was built by people who could DO and Make things, not by academics who could write and philosophise.

    If your University education opens doors to a career, all well and good, but it isn’t and never was an entitlement to greater things, “Sitting still and wishing,
    don’t make a country great,
    the Good Lord sends the fishing,
    but you must dig the bait.

    So you have a first class honours degree from Glasgow university and have just landed a top job as head waiter in the Poundland cafe….what then?

    1. barakabe says:

      That’s just the problem Britain has- we hardly do or make anything anymore- & even if we did we have a financialized system that discriminates against exporting markets like our own in Scotland. Most ‘careers’ now are just service sector paper shuffling, exploiting virtual numbers on conputer screens or embedding yourself into a niche of a corporate structure in return for naked remuneration ( ‘money is everything don’t you know?’).
      How do you define a career Colin- I mean within the narrow parameters you set forth- is an artist a career? A philosopher? A singer? A FIlmmaker? A sociologist studying poverty? Is a joiner more imporatnt to society than a philosopher? Is someone who makes more money than someone else more important than someone who makes less?
      We have a monetarist system that rewards those who work in financialized systems with money- but what of others who do equally valuable work how do we reward them?

      1. Lincoln Powell says:

        “That’s just the problem Britain has- we hardly do or make anything anymore”

        Nonsense. The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, and the eighth largest in terms of manufacturing output. The UK manufactures more than it ever has (though we should really be making more; I’d like to see us ahead of the Italy and France).

        “Most careers are now just service sector paper shuffling”.

        More nonsense. There are more jobs now in professional, technical, research, R&D and scientific sectors than any other in the UK now.

        “We have a monetarist system that rewards those who work in financialized systems with money- but what of others who do equally valuable work how do we reward them?”

        Err, I don’t know – you tell me?

        (Do you have a new alternative mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources lined up that doesn’t involve money?)

        1. JBS says:

          Oh, thank goodness, there’s been far too much good-natured discussion on this site recently. Welcome back, Corporatist Hell, alias One Baw Shaw, alias (briefly) Glazed Eye Moonies, and now alias Lincoln Powell.

          Wonder how long it’ll be before there’s a majority SNP administration at Manchester Town Hall. Any thoughts?

  4. barakabe says:

    Aye the right wing banters great! Reactionary types always seem to have that masterly control of irony- I personally find Lincoln’s Telegraph inspired analysis quite amusing. It is true the UK is the 11th largest manufacturing nation in the world we are the 5-6th largest economy ( as you say), so we can see quite a disparity there straight away. Manufacturing only makes up 1o% of UK ( & it has shrunk to 7% very recently). China, USA, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, South korea, Russia, Brazil, India are all ahead of us in terms of manufacturing (Canada, Australia are not far behind)-in fact in the ‘bad old days’ of 1970’s manufacturing contributed 25% of UK GDP. While its true chemical and pharmaceutical industries add to the UK balance of trade ( we all know the real lucrative trade is arms & the exportation of war). And even though manufacturing is actually the most productive sector of the UK economy we continue to see very little support from Tory policy or from the short termist model of financialized neo-liberalism that actively undermines the domestic export markets.
    Whilst you boast that the UK economy is the world’s fifth largest ( & one of the most unequal) there is virtually nothing between France-UK economy in terms of size- but it seems inevitable that the UK will be overtaken by India-Russia-Brazil & even Indonesia as well as Mexico in the next ten years or so leaving it possibly pushed out of the top ten- does that matter? With massively falling living standards in the UK ( mirroring the US for squeezed middle class) can you compare the biggest economies to the richest economies such as Norway, Qatar,Luxembourg or Singapore? We even trail the likes of Ireland, Holland, Austria, Canada, Finland, Denmark…& the UK is in 27th place in terms of GDP per capita. We are a boom & bust basket case economy overly reliant on the lopsidedness of the highly financialized/institutionalized fraud that operates in the City of London. That will come to an end at some time. The reasons for that are multiple dysfunctionalities:

    Chronic institutionalized neglect of long term capital investment in infrastructure predicated on short termist market fundamentalist ideology means we have low business investment relative to other advanced economies- capital spending as a share of GDP has fallen from around 20% in 2007 to less than 15% today-Research and development for example remains persistently below 2% of GDP & amongst the lowest in the industrial world. Our over-reliance on a speculative banking system means they are reluctant to finance the expansion plans of many small and medium-sized businesses. The UK has chronic weak productivity growth ( the so called ‘UK productivity puzzle’)- I reckon the reason is Britain continues to be heavily reliant on financial services so that we see a structural decline in manufacturing in terms of institutionalized neglect.
    The UK has several other problems to contend with due to its incapacity for preparing for the long term & these include its endemic unemployment – 30% of those unemployed have been out of work for at least a year (youth unemployment remains high) & there are wide variations in regional unemployment / job opportunities across the regions of Britain. We also have a chronic housing crisis in the UK with demand way too high & preventing labour mobility- a problem caused by the financial elites reluctance to wean itself off of huge rent profits. The UK also runs a chronic trade deficit – the UK ran one of the largest current account deficits on record last year – the gap was more than 5% of GDP in 2014- this in turn results in weak tax revenues ( a high budget deficit means that the national debt continues to rise in absolute terms)- what the fuck will we do when the oil & gas eventually runs out?
    We also have an economy that is based on a lack of competition in various markets such as the monopoly power we see in utilities such as gas, electricity & even in transport- little price fluctuation & lack of competition means high prices slow the economy. We continually see inter-generational ideological driven lack of investment in public services such as transport infrastructure that seriously damages the long term viability of an advanced economy. But for me the biggest structural factor undermining the productivity of the UK economy is inequality ( & even right wing establishment figures are realizing the effect of this on the UK)- one of the most important issues facing the UK as real wages have been declining for a huge number for the majority of people; the real interest rates for pensioners reliant in savings have been negative. Whilst Executive pay continues to outpace the growth of average earnings by a huge amount- so its fairly easy to see why GDP does not reflect the wealth of ordinary people in a country.
    Personally I don’t believe capitalism works, either environmentally, socially or even econimically ( as it is ultimately based on a slight of hand con trick). Even the ‘father’ of capitaism often spouted by right-wingers Adam Smith ( where they completely ignore the ethical aspect of his philosophy as an inconvenience) was skeptical about its long term capacity to provide material progress for humanity. The main reason capitalism will destroy itself/bankrupt society is that the public purse cannot sustain or support the social costs of extreme private wealth accumulation- the Externalities prop up capitalism & which the tax-payer continually pays for is unsustainable in a system that leads to chronic unemployment, crime, deprivation, poverty, & above all else inequality. Henry George who was a moral capitalist ( why does morality exist? Does it serve a purpose?) & he closest thinker I come to agreeing with but he was a naive realist who underestimated the avarice of economic elites to claw onto political power. I can give you a number of practical reasons why morality is important not only in economics but also in terms of the human condition- can you give me one Lincoln?

  5. Fran says:

    This article is music to my ears. We definitely need to redefine success. One of the best ways to destroy confidence and make people give up the will to live is holding others up as examples and giving out that ridiculous phrase ‘I did it so why can’t you’. There’s many a reason why. And what if that kind of success isn’t what you’re after in the first place. As for doctors, studies show they’re just as stressed and ill as everyone else. This set up isn’t working for anyone.

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