The Success Culture

Dec 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Rudyard Kipling, “If”

Success! What a glorious, ringing, resounding sound that has. Something golden to reach out for, a pinnacle to attain. Passing, winning, beating – success is heady stuff. We all have images in our mind: of applause, champagne, triumphant smiles, curtain calls, laps of honour, and of parading through cities in open-top buses.

Actually, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of success was an outcome, whether good or bad: just something that follows. This meaning is still in use in the word “succession” when one person follows or “succeeds” another in a role or in a family. The current usage of the word “success”, however, shows a shift to “the prosperous achievement of something attempted; the attainment of an object according to one’s desire, now with particular reference to the attainment of wealth or position”.

This concept of success (and its frightening shadow, failure) is embedded in our culture.

Given the magnitude of its profile, the enduring attraction of books on how to attain success in every aspect of our lives, from the seminal How to Succeed at Business without really trying onwards, comes as no surprise. We devour advice on how to succeed with women, at interviews, golf, work and even at breastfeeding. There is no part of our lives, it seems, in which we ought not to be striving for success. Not succeeding, failure to succeed, is a humiliation beyond bearing.

It is common for high achievers in many different areas to say, as the athlete, Kelly Holmes, has done, “You can do anything you want to if you set your mind to it.” This is an understandably popular attitude when applied to triumphing over adversity. We all like to be encouraged, to feel that we can make it, even in difficult circumstances. One story that hits all the right notes is that of George Walker, a Billingsgate porter from the East End of London, who became a successful boxer. When injury forced him to retire from the ring, he went into business, and built a huge empire, including Brent Cross, one of the early London shopping malls. As his obituary said, “He went on to buy hundreds of pubs, a chain of casinos, the Brighton Marina and the William Hill betting shops” (the Independent, 26 March, 2011). What it didn’t say is that he was also made bankrupt in the early 90s, and charged with – and acquitted of – theft by the Serious Fraud office.

Success in one aspect of life can pull the rest of life out of balance, often causing a high level of stress and even illness. The Independent reported that “as befits someone who has been alternately idolised and demonised by the press, [Mike] Tyson is wary of the public’s continuing interest in his saga. He says that celebrity made him ‘delusional’ and that it has taken nothing less than a ‘paradigm shift’ for him to come down to earth. ‘We have to stick to what we are. I always stay in my slot. I know my place.’”

It also has a considerable impact on the family. Those who have achieved extreme success in their work or calling are often even more out of balance, and often notoriously unsuccessful in personal relationships. Consider the personal lives of, for instance, Marilyn Monroe, Gandhi or Beethoven.  Intense focus excludes other parts of life, as if there simply isn’t enough energy to support relationships as well as a career or creative gift. Sometimes it is easier to give our attention to external “doing” than to the complex and problematic state of being in relationship.

Success, of course, often has a public dimension, attracting praise and bestowing status. Some people are famous merely for being famous, but generally fame is as a result of perceived success in a publicly observable field. Above all, to be successful implies wealth and influence – and a high place in a hierarchy. The cult of celebrity has infiltrated every aspect of public life, from politics to artistic performance, and exerts considerable pressure on those in its spotlight. It is no longer enough to be a fine writer, a virtuoso violinist, or someone who knows everything about taxation. People have to be media-savvy, promotable, celebrity-worthy – if possible, glamorous. Above all, visibly successful.

Public success goes beyond an individual or team achievement: everyone wants a bit of it. Unconnected others claim an association with those achieving success: “our” football team, a tennis player from our country, autograph-seeking fans, each hoping that by touching success some of it will rub off. The private lives of those in the public eye absorb millions of other people in a vicarious and voyeuristic way: even much of our “news” revolves round events in the lives of a few high-profile individuals. Celebrity seems to tell us that we are of worth only if we are noticed. We want what they have, and reality TV makes it all too easy to believe that a bit of talent can bring quick-fix success without too much effort.

In my local café, Rob acknowledges our dependence on celebrities. He gestures towards the show playing on the TV up in the corner of the room: “We’re indoctrinated to get our happiness through them. Sad, really.” Success is glossier than achievement or just being good at something. It has a public sheen, expects awards, presentations and public recognition. And it takes its toll.

Visible success, or fame, is particularly stressful. Richard Olivier, son of two renowned actors, talked of the impact of public attention on his parents and on himself as a child. Constant media attention is hard to live with: privacy is difficult to maintain. Even at times of family crises, door-stepping photographers try to capture a moment to publish to the world. Fame, Oliver feels, is powerful – and dangerous. People either can’t deal with it – some taking to drink or drugs – or they believe in the inflated public image of themselves, and come to believe they can do no wrong. When it ends, and the applause stops, adjustment to “normal” life is hard. We have seen many examples among politicians and other people in the public eye. Sportsmen such as footballers can be particularly vulnerable. Huge success and wealth can come very young; the career is short-lived; and plans are not always in place for a life afterwards, a life perhaps from as young as 35 onwards when a former star has to adjust to a life without public acclaim. One former Indian cricketer talked of the adulation and the pressure of an existence as an international player: “If you do well, they treat you like gods. You earn huge sums of money. It’s hard to let it go.” The pop singer Adam Ant, talking of life before and after a mental breakdown, said of the pressure of his huge success: “No one can prepare you for that.”

Children of successful people often struggle with their own lives, especially if their parents’ success has drawn public attention to their children, if busy parents have neglected them, or similarly high standards are expected. Even if parents’ expectations are not excessive, the role modelled for the children can be daunting; their own expectations may be unrealistic. Their talents may lie in fields quite different from those of their parents, and possibly less public.

It’s hard to satisfy the need for success. Winning is often not enough. Winning all the championships in one year, winning more championships than anyone else, being the most capped player, taking the most wickets, making the most runs, selling the most records, being not only top of the bestseller list but staying there for longer than anyone else – in some, the need and greed for success can never be satisfied. The quest can become addictive. George Walker explained the addictive nature of financial success. “When I get into something new and it starts making money I look around for another place to do it. I’m like a squirrel on one of them barrels – the faster I run the faster the bloody thing goes.” His motivation, he said, came from his background. “Anyone who has been poor must have the fear of going back. It stays with you all the time – the gut fear in any man has to be a spur.”

Extract from The Failure of Success, Jennifer Kavanagh, December 2012

ISBN: 978-1-78099-765-0, $16.95 / £9.99, paperback, 148pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-402-4, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

How real is success?  Does dependence on material success condemn most of us to failure?

From a wide range of answers and her own experience, Jennifer Kavanagh explores some of the stereotypes on which these concepts are based, and reveals what people feel really matters in their lives. There is a growing acceptance that failure can not only lead to success but can open us to profound change. If we let go of the quest for individual perfection, and accept what is, our lives and relationships will be enriched. If we let go of our judgemental behaviour, we will no longer view life in terms of success or failure. If we let go of our attachment to outcomes, we will be content with where and who we are.

“Putting one foot in front of the other, neither afraid of failure nor triumphant with success. Living, in other words.”

Jennifer Kavanagh ran her own business for fourteen years. She has also worked in the community,  in prisons and as a volunteer. She is a Quaker, and writes and speaks on the Spirit-led life. This is her sixth book.


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