Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Letting go of the need for success

There's a great line in a song I like by the band Modest Mouse; it goes 'Do you even believe there's a race to be won?' To me it's a very profound question because of all the many things our society tells us to believe the idea that we should strive to be 'successful' is one that is very rarely questioned.

Before we go on it's important to understand what success actually means to you because there's a lot of different definitions floating around out there. For some people success is about becoming better and better, it's about improving yourself, perfecting your skills. For others it's about using your talents to your greatest potential. For many it's about achieving what you set out to achieve. But the most common definition we find for success in our competitive world is that of beating others, winning, being the best.

All these definitions are to my mind problematic. Those definitions that emphasise self-improvement seem suspect to me because they imply that we are not good enough as we are, that we need to somehow prove our worth. And defining success as the achievement of a desired outcome suggests that we always know what is best for us in any given situation and denies the fact that sometimes the most undesired outcome turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. But it's the last definition that I find particularly fraught with complications, because if I'm going to be the best, have the most or win, then by implication there must be someone out there who is going to be the worst, have the least or lose. And this is not the kind of world that I would like to contribute to creating.

Being attached to success can lead us to push aggressively against ourselves, others or the harmonious natural flow of the universe. By doing this we separate ourselves from each other, become weak and exhausted and often miss out on wonderful opportunities because we are fixated on our goals and not receptive to other possibilities. Often if we really look at our need for success we find that what we really need is the approval or respect of others around us. This need for approval can really warp the choices we make in life and lead us down the wrong path.

So is there really a race to be won? I don't think so... In fact I think the idea of success is promoted in our society because at a fundamental level the socially unjust and ecologically destructive economic structures of our times require continual growth and to achieve this people must work long hours and buy many unnecessary products. Promoting 'success' is a wonderful way to co-opt people into both working hard and acquiring things. The intrinsic value of the work being done and the products being consumed is not questioned because the value of 'success' is so widely accepted and ingrained.

Letting go of the need to be successful means accepting that we are beautiful and worthwhile even without great accomplishments, material possessions and social status. It's about acknowledging that no matter how good we are at something, even if we are the best in the world, this will not necessarily bring us happiness. And it's about seeing that every human being has talents and qualities that make them an indispensable part of the Earth community.

Success is easier to let go of if you get in touch with your motivations for wanting to be successful in the first place. By becoming self aware, and by observing the thoughts you attach to the idea of success, both in meditation and through cultivating moment-by-moment mindfulness, you can begin to detach. In fact just noticing that you are attached is the first step! Now you can move towards a different idea of personal fulfillment, one that doesn't involve competing with yourself or others, or resisting the harmonious natural flow of the universe. 


Anonymous said...

I love that you posted this, I recently turned away from my business degree because success in a career and money sense is so...meaningless...like you said 'society tells us to believe the idea that we should strive to be 'successful' is one that is very rarely questioned.' im glad other people are questioning it too

logle01 said...

Thank you ;-)