What is success and why are we obsessed with it?

The word ‘success’ is a dominant force and one we can’t seem to reckon with. We often make decisions based on success - the success we have or the success we want. Voting is a prime example of this; people tend to vote alongside those with similar ‘success levels’ or scale up to vote like those who they aspire to be. An example of our numerical obsession would be the protests over primary school SAT exams. Kids barely able to tie their shoelaces are graded - embodying the mentality that we’re comfortable teaching children as young as six that success is measured in numbers.

The campaign videos around UK’s ‘Brexit’ debate emphasises the importance of success retention. The referendum about whether we stay within the EU has become a forum for people to talk about what they stand to gain (or lose). Every decision we make seems to be around the effect of our success, retention and acquisition of achievement. But, what are we aiming for? Success is largely a vanity metric and quantifiable to each individual based on opinion. One person’s success is another’s average and do we really know when to stop and appreciate the ‘successes’ we have achieved? The outcome is fairly bleak in terms of appreciation, we fleetingly celebrate success (or worse, analyse it against others) and then move onto the next challenge. People are consumed with generating success that we have lost track of where the successes are helping us to get to. Success has become a pseudo-buzzword and we're not even sure what it means anymore.

A key example of this weird autopilot approach is the education system. We train children to revise for exams, believing measurement of ability to hold great importance. The pressure of these assessments can often lead to undesirable side effects as children try to live up to expectations outlined by parents, teachers and concerningly, themselves. If all goes to plan and the child does well, they rise through the ranks in a bubble of measurement. The next three years at university is the same, albeit more alcoholic and then the graduates find themselves looking to apply their academic success to a career. This is where the issue multiplies.

A graduate enters the workforce after a minimum of 15 years in the education system. After a decade and a half of measurement, the student knows their ‘success rate’ and has become rather competent at improving that figure. However, when a graduate enters the workplace, they are not only on square one at the bottom of the hierarchy but they have to work out an entirely new system of success. Up until this point, all measurement has been directed towards entering the workforce. On entering a graduate job there’s an entirely new process in understanding what ‘success’ looks like within the workplace. There’s often a shock during the adjustment period as new recruits realise there’s more to measurement than figures. Most new employees, confused by the change, assume that their next ‘benchmark’ is to get a better job. The next few years are often spent coveting a job title, salary or company in a chase for the next ‘check in’ point. We chase what we think we should as we are told success should be measured.

What really happens is we spend the majority of our adult lives chasing the things we can measure. We lose track of the idea of experience and enjoyment, with the ‘softer’ metrics being the first to go as pressure intensifies. We spend so long chasing the next benchmark that we rarely consider if what we are taught is really success at all.

There’s threat in the race to become a success, an anxiety that we will miss the opportunities related to enjoyment and growth. That in our desperation to reach the next milestone, we miss everything that we should be learning on our way. The increase of digital has definitely helped some move away from the expectation that we have to follow a linear path, but we are still teaching people that there is a path: and it starts in primary school. Success should be relative to each person and their personal preferences. Some people measure their success in recreational activities, some in teaching their children to read.

It’s OK to have an alternate perception of what success is and for that to be unique to your own ambitions. Not everyone wants to be a high earner, and that is a positive as If everyone were to be in the top 1% we wouldn’t have an economy. The issue is that we assume everyone wants to be a top earner, to have a powerful job title within a blue chip company and earn a large salary; the problem is, it is just an assumption. With an alternative understanding of what makes a successful life, we have to refine measurement. It’s also ok if we don’t measure, it’s all relative and we should be able to track our own successes alongside our own expectation. Perhaps we will only really understand what ‘success’ looks like when we get rid of what we think it is.