Re-Rooting Success and Greatness

Making money from minute differences in stock price only a machine can recognize? "Success." - Making a living feeding, clothing, and housing fellow human beings without destroying our home? "Underdevelopment."

It’s only natural that we’d want to “get made, get laid, or get paid” – acquire social status, sate sexual desires, have enough and make more.

How exactly those things play out, however, can take very different forms, depending on individual differences and social contexts – and moreover, these wants, natural though they may be, aren’t all that makes for human lives and motivations.

It is only the way we and the societies we are a part of put the emphasis that desires get reined in or expressed more strongly, for better or for worse.

“[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life

We all seek happiness, seek to have a decent life, search for meaning and purpose. Lots of money and a high social status seems so easily appealing, but they aren’t necessarily it, or why aren’t all the CEOs and superstars happier and more well-adjusted personalities? Of course we’d still want our friends to like us – or to have friends in the first place – but universal adulation isn’t going to cut it when all you need is one person to stick with you when you really need it.

Same with sex. Why would you want to be universally acclaimed as an object of sexual desire if it just keeps you from having a serious, lasting, and happy relationship to one person you love and make great life partners with? (On the other hand, maybe you want something else. Maybe, also, you are in a social/cultural context where things are different. Still, meaningless relationships, of whatever kind, are unlikely to be “it,” either.)

Where we’ve gone, collectively, is to a cloud cuckoo land of the extreme.

With contemporary consumerist capitalism’s workings as basis and background, there’s isn’t just no “enough” anymore, but insanity makes the norm. Success is when you make not just enough for your needs, but more than anyone else, more than is good for the world, and then still look for more.

Making money from minute differences in stock price only a machine can recognize? "Success."  - Making a living feeding, clothing, and housing fellow human beings without destroying our home? "Underdevelopment."


Pathologically accruing more, beyond all norms and manners and thoughts of decency or any such quaint notions is all for par and thought to be just normal. The psychological profile you need to be the most successful, then, is one of pathology itself: Being ruthless, manipulative, without any qualms – but utterly charming at the same time. Welcome to “the wisdom of psychopaths.”
You don’t even have to be “evil” in any such sense (in scare quotes because we’re all manipulative and deceptive, not least to ourselves, at times) anymore, as the accrual of ever more, no matter what the effect, is increasingly built into the system of financial markets. For those who already have more than enough, anyways.

At the same time, there is some understanding that this may not be the best for us, and not the best in us.

Whether it is more concern for the weaker ones in society and support for our better, caring sides, or more individual freedom from a society that would keep everyone nothing but a dependent consumer, that we are seeking, we haven’t completely forgotten that being human means more than just trickery and the satisfaction of the basest of instincts (itself a misnomer, given how basic care, compassion, the desire for growth and mastery,… also are), no matter what fancy labels and rationalizations they might be given.

Now, it is high time to get back to our roots, to reconsider what success is, what greatness means.

“The definition of success — To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Consider what it takes for someone to have lived a good life, to have successfully raised a child. Yes, we admire the truly great ones who created something new and receive acclaim, we may envy the ones who can afford whatever they want and seem like they should be free of all care – but we also know that this is not what anyone can do and not even for everyone.

There is more greatness, increasingly, in doing what actually *is* better rather than considered great – but it will take a family and/or a “tribe” to find it socially supported.

It is the greater success to not make a killing no matter what the cost on the world, but to simply live, make a living and contribute positively to the world. Or so, it should be if we take a rooted look at the world and our place in it…

Here, perhaps, is an advantage to the recent and likely future troubles: The tougher the times, the more obvious the success of simply managing well. And there’s a lot of potential we do have to avoid greater, present and future, discontent and trouble and create better instead.

We have to start by going to the roots, of life and what makes it good, though. Not to chase after happiness and success while beholden to implicit assumptions about them, but to take a long hard look at what successful living can actually be. “Life is a game, and the one who has the most money in the end” is unlikely to be it; we are and certainly want to be – living, remembering, and remembered as – more than that, don’t we? Don’t you?

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