Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Success and the alienation of self-mastery


Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, writer friends who shared a romantic interlude and were also pivotal in the development of each other’s work. 

Especially in Western culture, the idea of the independent success story holds a lot of sway. Individuals must pull themselves up by their bootstraps — often while weathering intense social scrutiny and a lack of resources. They must perfect personal tasks like sticking to a schedule, staying healthy, managing their emotions and planning for the future.

In response to these needs, contemporary self-help literature is awash in advice. Motivational authors and speakers encourage self-empowerment. They teach others to forego the temptation to blame parents, lovers and society for setbacks. They emphasize the need to take action, at all costs and every day.

I agree that these principles and tips help us achieve a kind of success through self-mastery. But are there more dimensions of success than self-discipline?

Success, of course, has no universal meaning. It could be as (seemingly) simple as achieving personal happiness or as complex as contributing to society. Success in certain areas may prevent success in other areas; for instance, material success (or rather, a single-minded focus on material success) may become an obstacle to emotional or “spiritual” success.

For now, let’s define success as the achievement of a personal goal (as opposed to satisfying some external, societal goal such as wealth or beauty that might not resonate with you). And yes, this implies that individuals without goals are by definition not able to achieve success (although they may be perfectly content).

Success Beyond Self-mastery

My chief concern here is to explore the social dimensions of success. On the one hand, whether we choose to recognize it or not, social constructs help us create our “personal” goals (i.e. a person probably cannot set a goal for themselves that is not in some way related to the goals of other individuals across generations). As The Beatles once pointed out in their song “All you need is love“:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung

Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game

It’s easy …

But what most interests me is the inadequacy of self-mastery in achieving success and the corresponding need for other people, other minds, to help us achieve our goals.

Although we can learn or deduce the principles behind acquiring a skill, it’s much quicker to get personalized feedback from someone who already knows what they’re doing. Ideally, your feedback loops will also be part of an emotionally satisfying relationship — a relationship that caters to your need for love or companionship  while it holds you accountable to your dreams.

What’s more, the impulse to share your work with others is critical if you aspire to contribute to society. It takes courage to share, especially when you’re beginning your journey and making hundreds of mistakes, and so it’s best to warm up your courage muscle through practice before you eventually unleash your masterpiece on the world.

These insights are hardly revolutionary in and of themselves. And yet, biographical and character-driven media (books, movies, TV, myths, etc.) still tend to revolve around and sensationalize successful people who are either consummate loners (socially awkward or even hostile) or emotional vampires prone to volatile relationships.

By focusing on the individual, we diminish the relationships, the community and the culture that were required to unleash the greatness locked inside a person. These other things become little more than accessories, stepping stones and momentary crutches on a lonely quest to recognition.

In this way, the journey toward success becomes a journey of alienation: a mindset in which you must continually back away from the mainstream, the rabblement and all the temptations of the “normal” in favor of the “optimal.” The idea of success becomes entangled in isolation and loneliness.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Recognizing the pivotal role of relationships and community (even a hypothetical “community” of dead or distant thinkers or artists whose work you study and admire) helps bridge the gap between greatness and “wholeness” — the recognition of your connection to and integration with the world.

Especially if you aspire to help and find a meaningful place within the world, you are never truly alone.

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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