David Orr, a famous ecologist and writer, came up with an idea in one of his books which states that: «The planet does not need more ’successful’ people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who you have no fear of living with side by side. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with ’success’ as we have defined it.»
One could argue that Orr reveals the influence of Western culture, in which ’success’ is defined in terms of money and the ability to reach one’s material goals by all means. Plenty of people out there, in contrast, define successful people as those who are simply intelligent, civilized and well-educated with good families and well-mannered children (but who do not necessarily have lots of money). But neither definition seems particularly helpful.
Of course, such Western values, with its main principle of ’faster, higher, stronger’, is reflected across the world and in every corner of our lives. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to see it as either bad or good. The problem is that such a way of thinking defines our lives on this small but crowded planet.
Let’s take a deep breath and think about the kind of professions we usually associate with ’success’: celebrities of all kinds such as famous actors and singers; politicians, businessmen. In other words, everyone who simply has power, money and popularity. Try to imagine a ’successful doctor’. What is he like? Does he carry out complex operations perfectly and saves lives, or has he founded his own private clinic which is visited every day by wealthy clients, and made his fortune? What about a ’successful writer’? Is it the one who has created truly outstanding works of literature, or the one who has simply sold millions of copies of his books? And let’s not even think about the idea of ’successful scientists’, ’successful teachers’, or ’successful geologists’, all of which sound like oxymorons in such a context.
Here comes the paradox mentioned by David Orr: those who we label ’successful’ do not really make the world go round. ’Successful people’ do not teach our children. ’Successful people’ do not treat us. ’Successful people’ do not save the Earth from global warming. ’Successful people’ do not bake bread and do not mop the floor in the office. However, all those who do these things have a greater impact on the life of our society than any pop-singers, managers and tycoons.
The most interesting thing about this is that in our society’s understanding of ’success’ is not at all equal to ’happiness’. For example, ’successful women’ are commonly defined in terms of being careerists, however we often label wives and mothers as ’happy women’ (whether it’s true or not in either case is of course another argument; what matters here is our perceptions and common assumptions). ’Successful men’ are those who can make money and buy whatever they want. So what’s the definition of a ’happy man’, then? Let’s be honest, when was the last time you heard someone get called a ’happy man’?
Arguably, the existing model of ’success’ which predominates in our society today excludes happiness and, in fact, is really unhealthy. Indeed, psychologists from the University of British Columbia found that a number of top-managers belong to that small percentage of the population who are inclined towards psychopathy. This is due to the fact that such people are ready to compete for every opportunity that gives them an advantage over their more psychologically balanced colleagues.
It’s clear that the ’psychopathic’ model of success is inevitably going to be destructive in some ways. Maybe that is why the world is full of wars, bloodshed, endless economic crisis? How could it be otherwise in a world where so many of us believe so strongly that ’successful’ people (that is, psychopaths) should be our role models, and try so hard to be like them?
These ’successful’ people live in an extremely lonely world. They are surrounded by their employees, competitors and sometimes partners who may turn into their enemies at any moment. They have nothing to treasure except for their ’success’ and all its supposed benefits. Therefore, the destructive actions they direct towards a hostile, competitive world are really quite natural for them. They do not bring any happiness or love or beauty; all they can do is build on their ’success’.
Maybe it’s high time we reconsider what our idea of ’success’ should really be? Let’s assume those who change the world for the better (or at least try to) are the real successful people. You wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, get dressed, then…why not do something good for the planet? Let’s appreciate those who do more than read speeches written for them by somebody else. Let’s value actions rather than words. Let’s do our work well because we like it, not because it will bring us ’success’. And if we don’t like our work, let’s quit and look for something that will appeal more to us, so that we can do it well. Let’s appreciate our families and be attentive to our children.
Let me tell you one thing: success is definitely not equal to money. There’s no point being rich if you’re not enjoying yourself. Trust me, you’re more likely to be better off (in the spiritual, not financial sense) if you’re just happy doing whatever you’re doing.
If all of us followed this idea, we would all see more and more successful people coming out of the woodwork very soon. And ’success’ would finally be the same thing as ’happiness’. People would understand that they are not wasting their lives. The Earth needs such people because they will have no reason to destroy it. Finally, we would start to create something truly wonderful.