Military Sociology

What is Success?

What does it mean to succeed in life? By definition, success refers to achieving a desired aim. But what if your desired aim is to be a world-traveler and you are willing to work odd jobs in random countries for minimal pay? This is not a conventional image of success. We feel the weight of society upon us whenever our personal goals deviate too far from the social norm. Even though we all just want to be happy, our happiness is in constant tension with our need for acceptance.  

When the need for acceptance wins, we give up our own version of success for the conventional definition. Chuck Palahniuk says it best in Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Even though you may still feel like you’re in the driver-seat, you know deep down that you’re driving down the wrong road. As the sense of resentment grows, the morphine drip of material comforts, social status, and security numbs this nagging feeling. Beyond just material success, we seek “spiritual” success in a sense of self-righteousness offered by religions devoid of spirituality. As Karl Marx said, religion is the “opium of the people.”

Sunday mornings become fashion shows. We wear things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. In my youth, a church-going woman wearing pearls asked me how many starving children my silver chain might feed. The drip of self-righteous opium leaves logs in their eyes, but they can’t even feel it. Affluent society masks its hypocrisy with a veneer of politeness and good manners. Symbols of material success become symbols of moral success, disguising the state of moral lack. As William James said:

“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

This false image of success keeps us always looking for more. Bigger, better, smarter, faster, stronger, more attention, more stuff! The more we get, the more we want. Émile Durkheim characterizes this state of moral flabbiness in the following way:

“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.”

Drinking from the seductive cup of success will only make you thirstier.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy gives a tragic account of a man who wasted his whole life conforming to an empty social norm. On his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his life. Had he been merely going through the prescribed motions? In the society depicted, success comes at the cost of meaningful human relations. As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:

“Tolstoy’s book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life.[1]

A true and abiding connection to one’s life means living beyond the superficial success game. Veterans returning from deployment know this better than anyone else. Upon returning from a world where every decision means the difference between life and death, they are quick to diagnose our society’s moral flabbiness. As one Canadian veteran states:

“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”

Another states:

“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered…”

Bryan Wood, a U.S veteran, mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

Another states:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

Consumer culture leads us away from the true and abiding connection to one’s life that comes with following our own path toward fulfillment. Redefining success means staying true to a deeper sense of purpose, despite deviating from a superficial social norm. It means finding joy in suffering. It means having the courage to peruse one’s own journey when confronted by the fear of uncertainty. In a world characterized by rapidly growing uncertainty, we can try to seek solace in the empty promise of conventional success, or we can choose our own path.  The choice is yours.

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  1. Steve,

    Your observations about consumerism and success are spot on. (I’ve written a book built on much the same premise.)

    But don’t paint with too broad a brush. As Stephanie said above, religions have been distorted to justify great evil in the name of God, but that does not discredit the institution of religion, which ultimately is the source of all meaningful definitions of morality, and which provides the structure that gives us the guidelines and the strength to live moral lives. The convergence of atheistic society with amoral self-indulgence is evident everywhere you look.

    BTW, “the more you have, the more you want” is from the Talmud.

  2. Absolutely brilliant! Your analysis flows seamlessly, and I thank you for writing it wholeheartedly. There is much to take away and much to discuss. I will limit my comments to the following in that I thoroughly enjoyed your use of outside and diverse references such as the sociologist Durkheim, the author Tolstoy, and direct statements from veterans to relay a succinct message. I believe in that your sense of justice, protest, and compassion comes through in your writing. A change must occur in order to reach our fullest potential as individuals and members of society. I agree in that at the end of the day choice and free will are in every person’s hands. To choose meaning, purpose, and significance as championing notions on how to live a good life- a fulfilled life is where we must trail blaze.

  3. No wonder the righteous master said: seek ye the kingdom of God and all other things will be added. Aside the spiritual benefit I think it create a sense of serenity of soul to really focus on things that matter to us and thus we could define what success means to us as a person.

  4. Wow from the responses you hit a nerve with this topic of defining success! I love a couple of things here that ring true or with me
    The idea of working jobs in neat places with adequate pay to experience new or unknown undiscovered place . I would really enjoy that
    I love the reference to what is important as is seen thru the eyes of veterans Unspoken Abandonment
    This is a phrase I will use in the future bc I think it is relevant in more than one context
    In this context what could be more relevant than someone who has lost the ability to compete or fit in as one of the status quo. You are so right tangible things give pleasure but it is fleeting
    Sometimes I think I would like to not fit in and not care.
    The whole of this message resounds with me hugely!

  5. Success is not related directly to others it is measure of how closely you live your life to your own core desire. Your self’s desire. For instance you felt passionately about your subject, researched it well and then out it out there. That was your success – the fact that we are applauding you is nether here or there. You are a success because you are true. Monetary terms and praise do not make success.

    1. Agree completely with your comment. If we allow our ‘success’ to be dependent upon others validation, then it is no longer ours. Yes, it is important and satisfying to have ‘it’ be acknowledged, but it can also breed a sense of insecurity within us if it does not come from a place of ‘truth’ and authenticity.

  6. Quite an enjoyable and striking read. It is all too true. I appreciate the references you used, and now I am interested in reading Unspoken Abandonment, which I had never heard of until now!

  7. But isn’t the choice between what we want, what we need and what we get for free from society, the fun part of living. Sometimes we make do and sometimes we get to bask in the glory of our achievements! 😀

  8. ‘The more you have, the more you want.’ -and so it continues- this self-fulfilling prophecy. Is this the way of the Western World? Is it a Western disease, or a global one? My husband AND mother were raised in Africa. Both of them are avid ‘non-consumers’ . My husband’s favourite saying is “Why do I need a new one when this one still works?”-Are we victims of Western Societal ideals?

    Informative post once again. Certainly provided food for thought,



  9. “He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it.” (Hesse) Kind of a pretentious one, but the Freeman quote reminded me of this book.

    How does one escape the world of the bourgeoisie? It feels like more than the “fear of uncertainty” to me- society won’t allow us to exist unless we pander to its rules & ideals. The more time we are devoting to mindless/unimportant work (that some people have to do in order to survive, of no choice of their own), the less time we have to think about things that would allow us to find meaning/choose our own paths. Even the stress and worry of going through college, working, & etc leaves me feeling like i am unable to devote my time to any of the things I think matter.

  10. Steve, you do such a wonderful job here of connecting lessons from the veteran’s struggle to re-assimilate with the broader problem of self-fulfilment. I hope that those that you serve read this and understand that they are still fighting a very important battle for us – the battle of being witness to our own disconnection.

  11. I think that when success is guided by the person’s true path it can be profound but when success is merely a blast of what society expects or wants us to do then it is cold, artificial and unrewarding. I believe that success should be the path to enlightenment.

  12. Get older. You’ll feel better. You will have the success of having outlived most of the naysayers who didn’t travel when they were younger. I have always gone my own way, much to the chagrin of those who would manipulate me with conditional approval. However, I’m the only person I have to sleep with, and I sleep very well.

  13. Definitely more accessible than Baudrillard, and not quite as bleak, but… realistic? I ask, because western ideals of “success” – according to Baudrillard, have been carefully constructed so that our closest references to the fulfillment you posit, will only point us toward another material symbol of that fulfillment until we buy in or die. Do you think that our perceptions of “success” are our own, or are they inherited from our “closest references” to the past (ancestors?) If our definition of “success” is, as I believe, inherited, the task of perceiving “true” fulfillment would be like listening to an echo of an echo of an echo of, yet another echo, of a secret, whispered in the ear of an ancestor that lived five hundred years ago, far far away from western shores. Would we even know what fulfillment is supposed to look or feel like- let alone, how to attain it? Maybe we’re all just thinking too hard, and should stop; and devote all of our remaining energy to saving enough money to take our families to Disneyland! Seriously…great article, I look forward to reading the next!

  14. Love this post! I have said many times that I’d rather be rich in time than rich in money. I guess that’s my deviation from the social norm. I don’t want to work 60 hours a week for big wealth. I’d rather have the time to actually LIVE my life.

  15. Interestingly, I rarely ever comment on a post unless I feel passionate about the subject matter. In this case I wholeheartedly agree. Success bears emptiness if it is emptiness. Then by extension, success must hang on the deeper elements of the soul in order to be truly achieved.

  16. Two thoughts on this great article:
    1) So-called success can be the smallest amount of progress toward the smallest goal that has nothing to do with a tangible “thing,” i.e., treating one’s child more openly and kindlly ;
    2) I love drawing the distinction between ‘success’ and ‘fulfillment.’ While the two are hopefully not mutually exclusive, if forced to choose I will take fulfillment any day, thank you very much.

  17. “Consumer culture leads us away from the true and abiding connection to one’s life that comes with following our own path toward fulfillment.”
    ~ Excellent article! Thanks for sharing your insights.
    ~ In the face of America’s consumer culture of success, I have had to embrace humility in being viewed as a failure in order to follow my own path toward fulfillment.

  18. Although, I do agree with your article that success and the norm of society can be draining, what if individuals in society see their personal view of success as living off of those who do work hard in order to enjoy their life? Because of the depravity of man, there has always been law to convict the heart of evil and without a source of truth to follow,not all men and women will be as thoughtful and concerned with others, in their pursuit, as some are. So, universally we need the structure of society to support the infrastructure that would fall apart without it. Marx societies are full of hurting individuals who wish they had opportunity. I can only speak for Christianity, but you are right, hypocrisy does infilter many places of worship. We do have to remember though that the imperfect state of humanity never goes away under the authority of God. People are still people and will act as humans do…imperfect. Christians are changed by grace, not good works, but as a Christian the law of God is now written the heart and so instead of pursuing righteousness for the sake of being right, christians who truly love Jesus do it out of a love for Him and seek to become like Him. It’s a process of sanctification until the end of life. We don’t get it right all the time, and we are thankful for the grace of God each and every day.

    The truth that Christianity teaches is what sets us apart as a nation, it’s what our laws used to be based on, and it’s what makes us value the freedom that you speak of, but as a Christian, with truth in the
    heart, we know that with freedom comes responsibity. Without truth we are left with no boundaries. Even those who haven’t accepted the truth of Christ live by it in many places in the world because it is the difference between good and evil and we are created to recognize it. Until a person finds acceptance and love through a relationship with his creator, he will search and go his or her own way. Sometimes that’s trying to do good for others and sometimes it’s being selfish. How do we even define what is good and what is selfish without truth.? That’s why a communist society that Marx speaks of has never worked. Without God’s truth, mans heart of evil, defined by God’s truth, destroys everything he or she tries to create.

    I want you to know that I enjoy reading your articles so much. They make you think. Your intelligence is remarkable and it’s refreshing and unlike most of what I come in contact with as a blogger myself. Thank you!

    1. Stephanie, I read your analysis as a result of skimming its length, and I must say I had not thought about the perspective you offered. You have a point in how do we as humans determine our pursuits in ways that do no infringe upon others’ pursuits, happiness, and serenity. Your argument made me think about Nietzche’s works and my understanding of his argument in that there is no truth. Right and wrong and morality and ethics exist on a sliding scale based upon each individual’s perspective, experiences, and many other factors unique to the person. I applaud you for sharing your thoughts to this enlightening article and causing me to think deeper on the subject.

  19. The other morning I was flying back to Bombay. Once the descent starts to Bombay you can see mountains, the ocean and the top of civilization among the previous two. Two thoughts struck me while I sat thinking in pure sunlight looking at the minuscule existence of mankind. The second thought was – here I am miles away from everything I know – lives, thoughts, norms, clothes, food, friends, stress, depression, happiness, how does any of it matter, one just needs to distance oneself from everything one knows to see the in-consequence of trivialities. And because nothing matters, everything can, you can choose your bigger picture.

  20. True success can be achieved through ‘Interdependence’ according to Stephen Covey as I read the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. Society is just one aspect of the many things that defines our so-called ‘Success’. When we try to be principle-oriented people, we know that we’re successful and effective at the same time.

  21. By giving up our values and giving in, to the demands of what the society want us to be, we would lose sight of who we are, and we’d have to spend a lot more time, trying to establish who we are back, and so, I believe, it would be more important, to figure ourselves out first, before we try and become whichever roles the society expects us to take up, I believe, that the “self” is more important in this case.

    1. I so agree with this article on the dangers of a consumerist society and the pursuit of conventional success. I think success is doing what you love and getting paid for it, or even not getting paid for it but somehow creating the space to do what you love. Consumerism is like a disease that makes people perpetually dissatisfied with what they have, always wanting something new, seeking change. Whereas the essence of happiness is being content with what you do have.

      1. You have the right values on what success means to you. and, i agree with you, that the essence of happiness is being content with what you have, but, we’re all, trapped by the pursuit of more materials, that we lose sight of what is really imporant, our inner cores!

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