Success must fundamentally be real

May 23, 2023 10:38
Photo: Reuters

How should we come to understand success?

There exists a plethora of metrics out there. One’s wealth and net worth, tracked approximately by one’s income and occupational class. One’s so-called ‘social status’ - standing in a pecking order that is constantly shifting. Or, indeed, one’s level of happiness and ability to derive simple and hedonistic pleasures from even the more banal aspects of life - there’s a phrase for it in Chinese, termed xiaoquexin (small, certain pleasures of serendipity).

We are raised in a society that enforces mandatory comparisons - between ourselves, within ourselves, or against imaginary-concocted yet very much embraced-in-reality standards that come to define our understanding of the ideal life. The American Dream is anchored by a suburban, 3,000-sq. ft. house, a happily married couple with two children, frolicking in the idyllic afternoon sunlight.

The ‘Chinese Dream’ is undergirded by a thirst for growth and progress, despite the absolute paucity and utter post-war destitution in which the modern Chinese state was founded. There are differences across the world, sure, but at the core of the aspirational yearning by many, is a desire to be ‘better’ - better than others, better than yesterday, and better than benchmarks that are tightly scripted and upheld to the exclusion of dissent.

And then there’s also the generational element. Different generations may prize different components of their lives differently, as hallmarks or foundations of purported success. Millennials may be more personally progressive and driven by emancipatory politics than their younger counterparts. Gen-Z individuals, on the other hand, crave for stability and convention - starting bold and unorthodox start-ups is less of their thing. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those born in the Baby Boom, themselves the product of a jubilant celebration of a fleeting, momentary respite from the banal tendencies of war-waging and conflict-seeking of mankind. They, too, have decidedly different preferences concerning what a successful life looks like.

At face value, I think the answer’s rather simple. Success rests in the impact we leave upon this world.

An impactful life, one where we come to shape and alter the world around us, is a life that is most fulfilled and enriched. Whether it be an august statesman, a leading scientist, or a teacher of millions - through the academe or elsewhere - such archetypal figures are often those who leave this world radically different from where they started. Think of all those figures that teachers of open and unfettered countries can teach in uncensored history textbooks -- and the achievements they have made towards the long arc of human progress, or the calamitous outcomes they have wrought upon innocent civilians.

What we’d often find, when discussing so-called ‘great persons’ in historiography, is that these highly impactful folks’ moral legacies also tend to be a mixed bag. Consider Winston Churchill, for one - a man no less controversial in virtue of his despicable colonialism, and yet also a war hero that saved Britain from the clutches of the odious Nazi rule.

Or J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose research pioneered a groundbreaking cascade of breakthroughs in modern military science, yet also contributed - in a key way - towards the creation of nuclear bombs. He later came to regret (in part) the development of such weapons, and became an outspoken non-proliferation advocate.

Or Indira Gandhi, whose resolve, determination, and grit turned her into one of the most enigmatic and fascinating political leaders of the 20th century, yet also saw India through some of its darkest moments in democratic history and terms. Gandhi instilled in India some semblance of foreign policy autonomy, economic development, and political and administrative institutionalisation; yet she also oversaw campaigns against religious minorities that gutted India’s soul.

These are highly successful individuals. Yet they may also be in parts morally reprehensible, with their existences vastly regrettable by those affected by their decisions. And that is the underlying ethos of success - success is neither moral nor immoral, but foundationally amoral. It can come in many forms: transformative philanthropy, Machiavellian statesmanship, innovative intellectual pioneering, or discovery and uncovering of secrets and finds in nature and elsewhere. Success should not, and ought not be moralised, e.g. granted an air of elevated normative importance, that is frankly incommensurate with reality.

Yet as we dig deeper, I do think there’s more to success than mere impact. Many a mass murderer and dictator have left ‘lasting impacts’ in the form of their destructive, diabolical, and wanton policies - from staging unjustifiable revolutions to toppling sound economic structures and institutions of checks and balances. They may be ‘nominally’ successful, but it is not this kind of purported success that we should pursue.

True success stems from impacts that are achieved through empowering, not patronising, others. Successful individuals are those who can inspire groups, collectives, movements, to take up the mantle of their mottos - not because of coercion, not because of their nefarious monopoly of violence, but because they are truly inspirational. Because they are willing to make room and way for others to breathe and find their own paths amidst an increasingly divisive and fractious world. Because they are sympathetic to the concerns and needs of those who have long been shunned by systems of privileges and powers. Because they listen, they care.

That’s what makes for genuine success in a life.

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Assistant Professor, HKU