I live in a society that celebrates people who do TED Talks that go viral, people who own three properties before they are 30 and become CEOs by 40, people who found organisations and write best-selling books. People who, in short, achieve. I live in a Type A, success-orientated society, where ‘success’ is understood to apply to the the achievements of the individual, and stands as a barometer for personal value.
We all swim in these waters - even those of us who profess to live by other values and alternative paradigms that emphasise collective good over individual gain. Success-culture envelopes our bodies and moves across our skin in the most natural way imaginable. This is why there is such a proliferation of organisations and movements trying to create a better, more just, and more environmentally sustainable world, and why so many people feel the need to make their mark and instigate even more. We know, on one level, that change happens only when we put personal agendas aside to work together for the collective good. But to put a personal ‘success’ agenda to rest is as shocking to the system as a fish that has leapt onto dry land, or a baby who gasps a first breath. To many of us, it feels like death. Who am I if I don’t ‘achieve’?
I write these words with the shame of remembering my own self-promotion as I have sought personal success, and also a degree of compassion towards myself for being so thoroughly human.
Also, as a woman and a feminist, I write a very tentative critique of the over-valuing of personal achievement, because for too long women have put aside our personal agendas for the (seeming) benefit of everybody else. Women have been socialised not to be personally ambitious, and when we are, countless barriers are put in our way to prevent us from reaching our goals. As I write about the need to lay aside the drive for personal success in pursuit of a greater good, I do so with a tight-fisted caveat that women and other marginalised groups must not obliterate our selves in the process.
It is my firm belief that one must become all that one can possibly be in order for us to create a world marked by justice, equality and caring custodianship of our earth. Surely we are in an excellent position to bring about these things when everybody is able to reach their potential. But ‘reaching one’s potential’ is not the same thing as the way that my society understands ‘achieving’. It is very possible that reaching one’s potential involves TED Talks and book authorships and CEO roles - and it is of upmost importance that women, people of colour, LGBTIQ people and people with disabilities are fully represented in these achievements. However, one may reach their potential in a great myriad of other ways, that do not attract much congratulations and are not celebrated as any great ‘achievement’.
Perhaps paradoxically, we only reach the heights, depths and outer-edges of the potential self when we first give away our desire for personal success. We must escape the invisible, lukewarm waters of the surrounding culture’s value-system - which is the very value-system that is killing us - and breathe something new. Because the pursuit of personal success only leads to two things: either personal success, or personal failure. There is nothing that will change the world in that. Personal achievements keep us fat and content with our lives, and unaware that we could be playing a wholly different game. But by giving up the pursuit, we can open ourselves up to playing the critical part that is required of us to play - whatever that part looks like - and work as co-creators of a better world.
The difficult thing is how to tell when we are motivated by our desire for ‘success’, and when we are motivated by a deeper stirring to be all that we can be. I don’t think there are any easy answers here: only the quiet, continual attentiveness to what feels joyful and right. Somehow, we must extract ourselves from the value-system of the surrounding culture, and re-align ourselves to something more truthful. Perhaps this feels like filling one’s lungs with a jolt of cool, crisp air.