Is success getting a big raise? Earning the respect of your colleagues? Having time to volunteer? One school of thought suggests it’s not always the fast track that will get you there
What is the definition of success today?
Let’s admit it: success is a loaded word. We embrace it, celebrate it and, given our millennial belief that any of us could become a wild success at any moment, we have a long tradition of self-help literature on the subject, starting with a book that doesn’t even have the S-word in the title: How To Win Friends And Influence People
– originally published in 1936 and still one of the bestselling non-fiction books on Amazon. In it, author Dale Carnegie, a former pork salesman turned public-speaking guru, says it’s collegiality – fostering bonds of trust and decency at work – that paves the way to success.
In the 80 years since the book first appeared, we’ve meandered success-wise. We’ve lionised upstart innovators – from Estée Lauder to Steve Jobs to Jay Z – who struck it rich revolutionising various industries. Yet while no-one would have batted an eyelid in, say, 1986, had you cited “wealth” as a key marker of success – as many people did that year in a Wall Street Journal survey – today it has become more complicated.
The top five ways people now gauge a successful life, according to a 2013 study conducted by American Express with Kantar Futures, are good health, time for the important things in life, good marriage/relationship, knowing how to spend money well and a good work/life balance. By contrast, “having a lot of money” ranked 20th out of 22 possible success contributors. And last year, an NAB report concluded that happiness, relationships and wellbeing trump money when it comes to how Australians define personal success. Accumulating wealth is still central, but more in terms of achieving a sense of security and access to meaningful experiences rather than status. It turns out that working hard and being good with people are far more important to us than traditional attributes such as social advantage.
It’s not that people have given up on making a good living, says Kantar’s Ann Clurman. “Money remains important to everybody.” While baby boomers in the ’80s enjoyed things their parents may have only fantasised about – fancy cars and restaurants – many realised that “these things just weren’t doing it for them,” she says. “They wanted more.”
The New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued that pursuing money and prestige first – a trend he dates back to the mid-’40s, when the suffering and delayed gratification necessary during wartime gradually began to be replaced by a cult of self – has left many spiritually adrift. Reminiscent of Carnegie, Brooks swears by work’s power for good: those eager to reconnect with their desire for love and redemption can do so, he thinks, by diving into serious, self-correcting work (professional or volunteer) that requires repeated grappling with our own flaws (greed, shallowness or braggadocio, say). One admirer summed up Brooks’ theory, laid out in his 2015 book The Road To Character: “Rather than neurotically increasing our long list of accomplishments, we need to lose ourselves in what we do, and success will come on its own.”
This idea squares with a deeply ingrained cultural concept: hard work begets success. And while a cynic might suggest the route to the top is so much speedier for those born into privilege, it’s also good news that some of us still believe that great things can flow from our innate, abiding ability to buckle down and work. And so, we persist.