Success, what is it? Part One

I’ve been thinking about the term success and what it means, especially for creatives or the creative industry. It’s a strange time to discuss the term success, with everything going on. However, maybe it is also an amazing opportunity to reflect on social constructs, maybe during this time it is easier to see what is important.

The word ‘success’ started as a neutral term. It wasn’t good or bad, it was just an outcome. It fits into the process of doing something, the result neither positive nor negative. Think of the word succeed, not in its positive connotation but in the succession of things. Something will succeed another. The Latin past participle of success is succedere, meaning come after, go near to, come under, take the place of. Ced, cess and ceed all mean go. So, you can see that the word originated with the outcome of a process in mind and not the calculated value of that outcome. 

However, from the late 19 century the term success held a ‘positive’ tone within it. Success was now in opposition to failure. Both outcomes, but now with very different meanings. Success began to weave its way into modern modes of being in the world. What it was to have success, be successful, have a success story

Side Note: ‘success story’ was believed to be first termed in France as a critique on literary work. Not because the work was brilliant but rather as to its scandalous character. 

The merriam-webster dictionary defines success as:

  • a degree or measure of succeeding
  • favourable or desired outcome
  • one that succeeds
  • outcome – obsolete

The original “outcome”, (not positive or negative), now obsolete. 

So, success, the definition of a positive outcome, an outcome that meets the intention; and a successful person, (someone who succeeds), must therefore be a person who often meets their desired goal or intention. Seems simple enough. 

I need to vacuum because the house is dirty. I vacuum. Success!

However, success has another layer. The word connotes a mode of success that does not simply mean a positive outcome. We all know this. It has its negative side. And this is what I want to pull out and explore in relation to the arts and being a creative.  

When you Google success, definitions come up, and courses on how to be successful, which when you think about it – it’s odd. How can you teach someone to be successful when all success is – is a positive outcome!? Wouldn’t it depend on the intention? So, here is the problem. Success in our modern western world is obviously not about a positive outcome, it is about a SPECIFIC outcome. Wealth being the number one, along with winning, and fame being another and there is a few more definitions that point to a ‘successful person, who has a ‘success story’…

When we hear about successful stories it is about people who have met this SPECIFIC outcome and only this outcome.  

Hartmut Keil defines the American Dream as being:

Individual success, advancement, materialism, personal success, neighbourliness, naturalness, individuality, freedom, equality, equal opportunity, search for identity, nation purpose, American consciousness, democratic dream, dream of paradise, moving force, liberation of humanity, world’s salvation.

I find it interesting that he uses ‘success’ twice. Once for ‘individual success’, and then for ‘personal success’?? 

What I garner from this, is the individual success is of that person, rather than of a group. They have achieved something on their own while being recognised by a group. This part is important to point out as individual and group have a relation, for the success to come from an individual, first they have to be part of a group.

While personal success is something, they ‘own’, as in, they believe they have been successful in something. For example, you could have a businessperson, who is deemed successful by others, however, the same successful person, may believe their real success is being able to spend time with family and friends… you know what I mean.

So according to Keil there seems to be two ways to measure success. 

Individual success: what others think about our success in relation to what is culturally deemed as successful.

Personal success: What we believe our success to be.

I want to point out here that contemporary society is structured so certain types of employments or interests are deemed of different value.

For example, a singer can become known by being good at what they do, the more known the singer is the more is attributed to success. However, a plumber, (for example), doesn’t usually become known – society does not expect this of them to deem them as successful

For creatives, often, fame, or being ‘known’, is linked to individual success. The stakes are high. And because of this, individual success or the lack of it weighs creatives down.

This is where we can turn to personal success. I’m not (in anyway) saying that individual success is not something to aim for or have goals or dreams about, what I’m saying is that personal success needs to be valued higher. Creating is a quality of the human experience that needs to be celebrated no matter what. And we need to hold onto what we LOVE about this process and experience and not what others think of it.

We can’t control others’ thoughts. We can’t control what society deems as important one month and of little value the next. But we can control how we feel about our own creativity.

There is more I want to write on this, and so will return next week to this subject. I just want to acknowledge I brought the American Dream into the picture by quoting Hartmut Keil and there is good reason for that, but not enough time in this post.

So, if interested, please return and read part two.

Catch you next week xx

One Comment

  1. […] idea of individual success and personal success. So, just to catch up anyone that hasn’t read part one I will outline the definitions. Individual success is how you succeed on your own within a group, […]

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