Self Help Sanctum

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Is Success a Modern Myth?

by Ian Merrill

The stores are full of books on how to be successful. We are urged to awaken the giant within, win friends and influence people, or share in the secrets of the wealthy. We get hysterically excited at even the thought of success. We pump ourselves up with positive affirmations, we seek employee of the month, we chase victories, we stock up with achievements until our CVs reach that magic third page of puffed-up triumphs.


Our concept of success ebbs and flows throughout our life as our goals change and the goalposts move, luck shows itself, misfortune and chance lay their cards upon our table. Our definition of success changes as we grow and evolve.

We all pass through a period of grand ambition. It could be argued that we are born with a grand ambition, even if that ambition is to live, to learn, and to meet our challenges. But often with experience and, let’s face it, a series of disappointments about what life can really offer us, what we thought was the success that would change everything becomes a less concrete, and more abstract idea. Eventually, where once we wanted to rule the world and captain our country, we end up wishing for nothing more than a peaceful life. But I believe that this so-called modest ambition is more elusive than the greatest success and this is at the heart of our internal and material struggles.

No matter the trophies in the glass-fronted cabinet, the certificates, the children long gone, the photographs to prove it all happened, success is not the solution to the things we often think it will cure.

We are driven to success from the day we are born—driven to succeed in the attainment of childhood skills like potty training and using a fork, reading and writing, exams and qualifications, and then in adulthood with careers and promotions and projects of every type, in love and relationships. We want beautiful children who can walk at one and talk at two and play concert piano at four and professional tennis at five.

Do you ever wonder what this is all about, this endless setting of barely achievable and often unrealistic goals, or goals that seem to exist for no other reason than to fill time — goals and ambitions that either end in failure or end in a success that is so short-lived that new goals form before the fizz from the celebratory champagne is flat. Success is an abstract concept with no inherent meaning but to which we are addicted.

The world we are party to is one where these bizarre and extreme and endless notions of success are rewarded, and that even if one wished to simply exist — to exist simply — it would be near impossible. Indeed, we are barred from existing any other way than being whipped to success, however you define it, and should we fail to succeed we are punished heavily for doing so, financially, emotionally and socially.

We are barred from simply existing because of the ideological vortex of the political and social world that sucks the entire population into its draft and leaves no prisoners in its wake. There is no incentive to live any other way as there is no value attached to it in any political ideology — or by society at large. Anything other than strife and drive is considered a non-vocation, even a non-existence.

There is no biography of anyone who has ever lived which has celebrated their material or social success above their experience of love and friendship and family, yet the drive to succeed often negates and destroys all three.
Work stress, burn-out, psychosomatic and physical illness, anxiety and depression, broken marriage, suicide, death, violence and aggression, deceit, disappointment and frustration are among the epidemics rooted in the system of success. Success - it's overrated.

Ian Merrill is author of Who Wants the World? Alternative Ambitions for the Disillusioned.

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