Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Is Success?

I fear the popular notion of success stands in direct opposition in all points to the real and wholesome success. One adores public opinion, the other, private opinion; one, fame, the other, desert; one, feats, the other, humility; one, lucre, the other, love; one, monopoly, and the other, hospitality of mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Going through my high school yearbook not long ago, I was struck by how many of the salutations written by my classmates were about my future success - whether that was a must or not given my talents, or in Kraftella's salutation probable but not certain (not very good math humor). Not all the salutations were about success, to be sure. The most prescient of these others, written by Steve M., predicted another championship for the Knicks in 1973, with Willis Reed back in the lineup.  Then there was one from David E., who referred to me as a Monster Computer and that was it, short and sweet.  And there was one from Cliff L., who said he had to write something nice or I'd sit on him, as preface to some teasing in what came after.  (I never did sit on him for what he said, though I should have.)  Yet there were comparatively few of these idiosyncratic salutations.  A much greater number were of a type, the type that focused on success.

Looking back at this 42 years later, I'm struck by the importance of success in my classmates thinking, yet with no accompanying mention of happiness.  It got me very interested to know what I wrote in their yearbooks.  Was I also of this same mind?   It also got me wondering what recent high school grads write.  Does success weigh as heavy on them?  And I was also puzzled as to whether it was the kids' parents who really were the ones speaking in those salutations, with the kids merely serving as mirrors of the prevailing culture already embodied in their parents.  We lived in a middle class community, at a time when the conventional wisdom nationally was that the children would fare better financially than the parents or, at a minimum, stay on par with them.

I doubt I can improve on the Emerson quote that leads off this piece.  So, instead, I will try to leverage it.  Were my classmates writing about the popular kind of success?  Sometime later in their own lives did they find the real and wholesome success?  Can the two coexist with one another?  Or must one forgo at least one in an attempt to attain the other? 

It may be easier to argue for coexistence of the two notions for folks in academia, particularly those who already have tenure, so some material success is more or less assured.  I know that there are no ironclad guarantees.  Academic departments can be closed and along with that tenure might be rescinded.  Further, entire institutions may go belly up.  But, surely, someone with tenure in higher education has more security than most others who are working now.  Such a person then has the freedom to concentrate on the other kinds of success, in teaching and with interactions between colleagues.  Even then, however, not all academics choose that path.  Many become (or already were) abrasive and brazen.  Economists have that reputation, as a rule.  Mathematicians may be more so.

This, too, creates a puzzle.  Might Emerson have been too demanding in his notion of real and wholesome success, with favoring private opinion, on the one hand, and with humility and love, on the other, themselves not compatible, or requiring such high character that perhaps an Emerson can achieve it but the rest of us can not?  I've been in academia for upwards of thirty years and I still don't know the answer to that one.  Individual generosity of the spirit still seems possible where the culture favors a more atavistic and predatory approach.  I've experienced this from colleagues, so I know it isn't a complete pipe dream.  But it doesn't seem the norm, which is harsher and less welcoming.

I had one student last fall, she graduated this past spring, who is now in the midst of training to do Teach for America in Houston, Texas this coming fall.  When she and I discussed this briefly she indicated that after a couple of years of Teach for America she would like to go to law school.  This is reminiscent of the older pattern - do a stint of Peace Corps and follow it with a quest for material success thereafter.  This sequencing is interesting, noble in some ways, perhaps too convenient in others.  It conveys the need to pay your dues first, but ultimately taking care of number one becomes the primary goal. 

Peter Drucker has a different idea.  Each of us should have two jobs, one for pay, the other as a volunteer, to do good works.  If this is done on an ongoing basis maybe it is a way for those outside of academia to best achieve both sorts of success.  Yet Drucker puts further stipulations on the volunteer work, to wit that the volunteers must feel they are learning on the job.  It is not sufficient, in Drucker's view, that others who are less fortunate benefit from the volunteer effort.  I can see Drucker's point as I tend to lose interest in things once my own learning has plateaued.  But it is far less clear to me whether Drucker and Emerson are on the same page or not.

Let me close with the following question.  Imagine a reunion with my classmates where we all brought along our yearbooks, in large part so we could see what we had written.  Would those who wrote about success still think that was spot on?  And would they know what they meant by term?  I wonder.

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