Demonizing Success

“The world doesn’t need more successful people. The world desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” –Dalai Lama

Why, as a culture, have we decided that success is a bad thing?  I’m referencing the above quote from the Dalai Lama.  Well, I’m going to assume it was the Dalai Lama because that’s who the internet tacks on to every variation of it; but who knows, might have been on the back of a Snapple cap.  At face value it’s a hard statement to argue with as each of those (peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers (huzzah!) and lovers) are commonly regarded as Good things.

The part I take issue with is the implication that success is, in essence, a moral failure.  Success isn’t the problem.  The problem is how we’ve come to perceive it.  While we tend to view those who have made lots of money as successful, it’s generally assumed that the wealthy have, ironically, only achieved that status by being morally bankrupt. That in order to be successful one must lie to, cheat against, steal from and stomp on anyone in their way; that success is measured in the trail of bodies left in your wake. Ultimately, that the very notion of success has been divorced from goodness.

“But Adam,” you say, “You’re reading too much into it. That’s not what he meant at all.”

But it is.  Here’s the rest of the quote:

“…It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

That’s pretty damning.  Now, one could say he’s added a disclaimer to his words by saying “as our culture has defined it” and if so, fine, then he agrees with me.

But I don’t understand it.  “Success” is not an objectively quantifiable concept.  It’s not a unit of measurement.  You don’t have to accumulate One-Million $uccesses before you can claim to be successful.  Success is not a thing you do, it’s not an occupation or a career.

Success is a product.  Success is an end result of accomplishing a goal, and it’s something we should all be striving for.  To say that success is unrelated from goodness is to say that goodness is the result of failure.  That trying and failing is the goal, that the world needs more people trying and failing to make peace.  Trying and failing heal, failing to restore, failing to tell stories and failing to love.  That’s what this world needs, according to the popularly accepted version of success.  And that’s bullshit.

But here’s the weird thing.  On some strange dissonant level, we all know this.  We all want proper success.  We all chase success in its definitive form. We all set goals and set out to achieve them.  Nobody says to themselves, “What I really want to be in five years is a failed artist.”  What we’ve done is possibly the most philosophically twisted thing I’ve ever encountered.  As a culture we’ve relegated morality to the realm of consolation prize.

In popular philosophy (by that I mean the actual practical beliefs of a culture at large) we’ve decided that morality is what you get after you’ve failed.  We’ve equated success with “$uccess” and when we fail to achieve it we can say, “Well, at least I’m a good person.” Or “I failed because I refused to compromise my beliefs, my integrity, my morality, etc.”  That’s the popular philosophy we’ve chosen accept; that’s the underlying essence of what the Dalai Lama is saying.

We become righteous when we fail to achieve Evil. – Dalai Lama (paraphrased)

How fucked up is that?!

Personally, I refuse to accept that.  I cannot allow myself to believe that the only pathway to success is through moral compromise.  Nor will I allow myself to assume that living well, being morally courageous, and fighting to make the world habitable and humane will ultimately prevent me from achieving success.  I just can’t do that.

That is a bleak, dark, sad world.

Note: I don’t normally ask this, but please share this with people.