For most of us, we have heard and lived under some variation of the phrase “hard work is rewarded.” This forms the basis of the concept of meritocracy. Borne out of the consensus that risk can be managed, mitigated, and even calculated, even the concept of a meritocracy has come under scrutiny going as far as arguments that there is no such thing as merit/effort/intelligence as the determination of success – that it is only luck.
Material success, though, ultimately boils down to the willingness to take on true risk. Not the illusion of risk – those ubiquitous calculated strategies from investors, MBAs, and financiers that focus on mitigation and management. Rather, the risk of putting 100% of one’s time and resources and talents in a venture or structure that has the potential for catastrophic failure and loss of it all. Common parlance uses the term “gamble” to encapsulate that feeling and the extreme of the outcome. At the end of the day, most people have high degrees of personal risk aversion. That is by no means a pejorative, as it is necessary for stability and safety.
Outside of re-examining the nature of risk, it is equally important to acknowledge that the opposite of success is failure. And in failure, maybe even more poignantly than in risk, lays the crux of our recent consternation with ascribing success to effort and work and the risk-reward metrics. We live in a new reality formed within the past decade: namely the intellectually dishonest policy of “too-big-to-fail” that, bluntly, rewarded an abject failure of a risk with success.
When our politics and economy not only misconstrue the nature of success and failure, but actively work to subvert them in an open access system, perhaps it is inevitable to lurch around to redefine what success may mean in our current economic system.
So, the term success has been buzzing in the ether. We talk about it, we still strive for it, we both congratulate and begrudge those who we think have it. Most of all, we tend to contextualize success in relation to other people.
And yet… let’s spend more time examining success in a personal way and less about the comparison with our neighbor’s bank accounts. As Emerson wrote, “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”