The Vice of Success
There is a question I often get emailed about success. The question is pretty simple: “how do I get where you are?”. I remember I asked Doug TenNapel this question at one of his college lectures, long before our friendship started. It was not a college I was attending. It was a college in Idaho I drove to mostly so I could ask him this question. His first response was a chuckle, then an answer that more or less came to this point: be the kind of person who works hard and creates whether or not you “succeed”. Not the road-map answer I was looking for. I understand that chuckle now more than ever. At the time it felt like mockery. But it was a sympathetic chuckle, because this question is the eternal, unanswerable question all “made-its” get asked by “wanna-make-its”. In all honesty, though I am seen as a “made it” by some, I feel every day like I am still trying to “make it”. One thing you learn about “making it”. Your definition of “I made it” changes constantly. The more you make it, the more making it you have left to do.
This is probably for many reasons. For one, the vice of success is unquenchable. But also, because the path to the “top” is not the simple upshot many of us think it will be when we kick things off. We have a picture in our head of the map. It has a few ramps and swoops, but it’s fairly simple: I make a great thing, people pay me money for it, I made it, the end. In reality it rarely works out that clean, or final, or eternal. Almost every success has a drop off or a coveted successor beyond it.
And this is why we must change our perspective when it comes to success. For if success is our goal, our whole ambition is based upon a desire for something we cannot even define. We are trying to follow a map to a moving target. That author I quote on rare occasions, G.K. Chesterton, spoke of this in his essay The Fallacy of Success in which he derides the fad of books written in his time (which are no doubt similar to those of today) to supposedly train men to be successful.
“At least, let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride? A hundred years ago we had the ideal of the Industrious Apprentice; boys were told that by thrift and work they would all become Lord Mayors. This was fallacious, but it was manly, and had a minimum of moral truth. In our society, temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself. Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman. The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues. But what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?”
And that last line is the point. “What shall we say of the apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?”. The vices being avarice and pride. A desire to be bigger, better and more successful than others.
"The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues."
It’s a sneaky vice, because it is the idol of our culture. But it strangles art and the joy one can find in any pursuit. If you are charting a course with your aspirations, you may be pulled by vice or propelled by virtue, either way you move forward. But only one builds up a lasting structure. Only one is a foundation. The other is often a mirage, and if you do not reach it, all you put in to get to it was as useless as a mirage. But the man who builds his life on virtue finds that success as defined by your culture is secondary, if not completely insiginificant. Success is not the point. We build, we improve, we create, we seek wisdom... we do these things because they are the nourishment of the spirit. Seeking the undefinable illusion of success does the opposite. It sets us on a course of thirst rather than fulfillment. It tries to mark for us an eternal utopia in our future on earth instead of beyond. So, my answer is similar to the one I received from Doug TenNapel at a college in Idaho. Throw off the vice of success and embrace virtue. Do it with wisdom and without entitlement. Be great now instead of waiting someday for your culture to say you are. What the culture calls great today they will call rubbish tomorrow. True greatness, built on the foundation of virtue, stands up regardless, and it can never be knocked down by a lack of “success”.