The Myth of Success

One of my favorite sports movies of all time is Major League. Not only is it hilarious (Bob Uecker at his finest; Charlie Sheen pre-Tiger Blood), but it’s one of those feel-good, rags-to-riches stories that’s as American as baseball itself. For those who don’t know the movie, it’s about an abysmal, rag-tag Cleveland Indians baseball team on the verge of being sold and moved to another city. To keep from being dismantled, the team has to make some money and get some butts in the seats – STAT. Basically, they have to start winning.

Like any movie of this variety, the majority of the movie is spent on the losing, which makes for good comedy and also endears us to the team itself. Ultimately, though, we know what’s coming, and we love to see the underdog rise to the occasion. The “rise,” however, is often the most underdeveloped part of these movies, usually occurring not in real time, but in a montage. While the montage might span weeks or even months, the quick images that flash before our eyes give the appearance that the success itself has happened over night.

We don’t just see this in sports movies. We see it in love stories as well, whereupon a couple meets and falls in love instantly, the complexities of their relationship boiled down to a series oversimplified shots of skipping through ocean waves, going to a carnival, and making love in a park somewhere. This, in my opinion, is one of the major myths of success in America: you don’t have it; then, viola, you do. The more significant – if not more dangerous – underlying message, though, is that if it doesn’t come immediately, then it’s not going to happen at all.

The problem is that in our culture, we focus only on the success itself (winning that final game, finding that special someone) and not on the work it takes to get there. Our celebrity culture reinforces that same idea. Basically, you’re a nobody until you’re somebody, which means that we missed the whole process of hard work that it took to become that somebody. We think that Tiger Woods could always drive a golf ball 400 yards or that Meryl Streep has always been a fantastic actress or that Bill Gates just woke up one morning and created Microsoft. We didn’t know them until they were already good at the thing for which they’re known and idolized, so we have no idea about what it took to get them to where they are now (though, watching the E! True Hollywood Story can sometimes help with this). Plus, we really don’t care. The point is that they’re awesome now, so why should we waste time looking back at the hours upon hours of work that it took to get them here?

Not only do we not care about what it takes to achieve success, we really don’t want to hear it because we know the answer will be unpleasant and go against everything we think about the immediacy of success. No one wants to hear that Tiger Woods practiced his swing for 4 hours a day for most of his natural life or that Bill Gates was in the right place at the right time and seized an opportunity (see Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers). In order for the myth of success to work and sustain itself, we have to hold on to the belief that it just happens for some people and, therefore, can just happen for us as well.

I have experienced this phenomenon a lot lately even in my own not-so-famous world. Since July, I have lost about thirty pounds, which inevitably leads to the “how’d you do it?” question. To be clear, I have lost this weight by: moderating and being more mindful of what I eat and how much I eat (joining Weight Watchers helped with this), drinking lots of water, coffee, and tea, and working out for at least 90 minutes, four times a week – doing both cardio and weight training exercises. I did not lose weight by: starving myself, binging and purging, undergoing weight-loss surgery, taking diet pills, getting sick, or having an abortion. I mention this because I was actually asked about all of the aforementioned methods. The point is that whenever I tell people that I lost weight by eating better and exercising more, I’m met with disappointed faces, as if they expected me to have some secret potion or pill that they just hadn’t heard about yet. When people hear that it takes work, they stop asking questions.

Our delusion that success “just happens” is not the only myth that we abide by. The flip side – that success is just a matter of hard work – is also faulty. I think this point is illustrated nicely by a very good friend who recently said to me, “No matter how hard I try, at this point in my life, I will never be an astrophysicist…or The Hulk.” While my friend has come to grips with the fact that he will not be a rocket scientist or a superhero, many of us struggle with the idea that there are just some things that we will never be able to do no matter how hard we work at it. And, our culture does not do a very good job of setting us up for the failures that we are bound to experience. Typically, when we hear about someone’s failure or rejection, it’s couched in terms of how they proved everyone wrong by succeeding in the thing that they were told they couldn’t do. Who doesn’t love that scene in Forest Gump when Forest’s can-do spirit breaks him out of his leg braces, and he starts running (on empty)? That’s our success story, and we’re sticking to it.

Following on the heels of the hard work myth is the belief in the self-made man, or the idea that success is achieved in isolation. Ben Franklin, who is certainly at the top of my list of awesome Americans, is – wrongly – to blame for this notion. His autobiography, which almost every American student has to read at some point or another, is often cited as the first document showing this ideology of individual success, and it is often taught to students in this way. However, what’s missing in the discussion of Benny’s life is the number of opportunities he was offered by others. Yes, he took advantage of those opportunities, but we often overlook how many people gave him books, jobs in their printing presses, and food and shelter when he was broke. We overlook the letters between him and his philosopher/writer friends that inspired him to think creatively about the world around him. We even overlook the part of the autobiography in which he says that all people need to have a guide or mentor who is smarter than they are so that they can learn and be challenged. Because of our misunderstanding of Americans like Ben Franklin, we have a misguided reliance on self-reliance and, therefore, lack the ability to network, seize opportunities, be good to people (because you just might need them someday), and ride someone’s coattails until we develop our own. We just don’t get how much we actually need each other to be successful.

Because of these misleading and, oftentimes, contradictory notions of success, the anxiety surrounding it has completely crushed any desire to work for it. The word itself has lost meaning and, as of late, has become synonymous with – put simply – not fucking up.

On the first day of every semester, I begin my classes with a getting-to-know you activity that involves my students having to discuss something that they’re good at. I then record these successes – which range from snowboarding to cooking to texting to being a good mom – on the board next to their names.

Once the list is up, I go around the room and ask the students how they define the term “good at” in relation to their chosen activity. Many of the students have actual definitions, such as being good at golf means shooting under par three out of every four rounds. But, more typically, students define being “good at” something as doing it without messing it up. Meaning, they seem to believe that simply completing a task without failure is an achievement.

I then ask them if they were always good at the activity that they put on the board. The question is supposed to get them to acknowledge that at some point they weren’t good at the thing they are good at now and that they got good at that thing over time, usually through a lot of self-motivation, watching and learning, practice, perseverance, and coaching. Essentially, I want them to think about writing in a similar way. The question is not meant to imply that success in writing is based solely on hard work, but instead to guide them to the larger point that no success occurs over night and without some level of frustration, repetition, practice, and guidance.

In recent semesters, though, I’ve noticed that many of my students answer my question with a resounding “Yes,” that they have, indeed, always been good at the activity they listed on the board. At first I was taken aback by their responses because who actually thinks that they’ve always been good at anything? So, I started prodding them (via the Socratic Method) about what it looked like the first time they cooked a meal or got onto a snowboard. Inevitably, they say that they fell off the snowboard the first time they got on it, or they burned the first meal that they ever cooked. I then ask what their snowboarding or cooking looks like now and how they got here. It’s only then that the students acknowledge – begrudgingly, of course, with plenty of eye rolls and deep sighs –  that they weren’t always good at what they are good at now and that they got good at their activity through practice, patience, coaching, and/or making mistakes. The point here is that it takes prodding to get them to the realization that they actually did something to be successful; it didn’t just happen.

This first-day activity is telling in many ways. First, it indicates that we often inaccurately judge our success by conflating “not failing miserably” with “mastery.” I often tell my students that some of them will be “C” writers in the same way that I was a “C” math student. Sometimes a “C” is all you’re capable of achieving, and, in most cases, that’s good enough to get by. But, at the end of the day, a “C” means that you get it…kind of. It does not mean you’re good at something, and it certainly does not mean you’re a master. The problem is that because we count not failing as a success, we delude ourselves into thinking that our abilities in a given area are greater than what they actually are. I am aware that the “C” that I earned in tenth grade geometry counts as “not failing,” but it does not mean that I am capable of building a skyscraper. However, I often have to spell this out for my students. At the end of every semester, I have to explain what seems obvious to me but often comes as a shock to them: a “C” in my writing class does not equal a “C” in the next, more difficult writing class. They wrongly believe that “not failing” in my class means that in general their writing abilities are good and will lead to success in future courses even when the courses increase in difficulty.

What we’re seeing in this case is a redefinition of success – and, by extension, ability – in our culture. We’re told that there are those who represent greatness – Olympic snowboarders or Iron Chefs – and then there are the rest of us, who, at the end of the day, should simply aim not to fail. We are then praised for simply not failing, and, in turn, erroneously conflate it with success. Psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying the concept of “over praise” in terms of how we reward our children and students, and the research seems pretty clear that overly praising our children and students is actually hindering, not helping, their personal and intellectual growth. Again, we’re not all going to be good at everything we put our minds to, but we should at least call it like it is so that we can have an honest estimation of our abilities.

My first-day activity also shows that we view the “process” as separate from, and less important than, the success itself. Once we’ve gotten there (or, more accurately, believe we’ve gotten there), we forget how we got there in the first place. If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he writes about the 10,000 hour rule, which is what he estimates as the amount of time people need to practice ONE THING in order to achieve success at it.  That’s about 416 days or a little over one year. The problem is that we don’t ever see what anybody does in those 416 days. We don’t see Tiger Woods at the driving range or Michael Phelps swimming laps. Most of the time, even when we’re the ones doing the practicing, we’re not being all meta about it and thinking about we’re doing. We don’t get a glimpse into other people’s processes, and we don’t pay nearly attention to our own. So, it’s no surprise that after the success has been achieved, we don’t (or can’t) acknowledge what we did to earn it and, therefore, we disregard the steps it took to get there even though knowing those steps might be helpful and applicable to future times when we will try to succeed at something else.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that we’re succeeding less and less. Because we underestimate the process of attaining success, because we don’t (want to) acknowledge the hard work and patience that it takes to actually achieve success, because we don’t accept the reality that sometimes, no matter how hard we work, we will never achieve that success, because we don’t believe in making mistakes or being wrong, because we believe that we can and should make it on our own, we are left devaluing learning and education,  devaluing constructive criticism – seeing it, instead, as an assault on our very personhood, and devaluing togetherness – as opposed to competition – as a more valid path to success. The result? A nation that views success as screwing each other over and, in turn, rewards people – with huge bonuses and stock options – for doing the screwing. A nation that wants to get drunk, have sex, and act like complete idiots on TV because that’s less work and more lucrative than studying and getting a job. A nation that institutes a “Race to the Top” policy that essentially requires public schools to compete with each other for dwindling federal education dollars, as opposed to working collectively to solve our educational problems. A nation that cares more about standardized test scores and success rates than about actual success (as in, acquiring knowledge and critical thinking skills). And, a nation that advertises education like this

(I’m getting my degree while lying on my couch!)

We are in a crisis. We’d never know it, though, because the Dow Jones hit 13,000 the other day (whatever that means), employment is now in the 8% range, we got Bin Laden, Snooki is pregnant (so maybe she’ll cut back on the drinking and public urination), and the housing market is making slow gains . So, obviously we’re back on track as a nation. Disregarding these important measures of success, we are forced to take seriously presidential candidates like Rick Santorum, who is chomping at the bit to be the anti-education candidate, and Mitt Romney, who thinks that running a successful business is the same as running a successful country, perpetuating the idea that everything in this country is in fact a business, including education.  We have a President who rewards bad business practices with bailouts; who refuses to hold accountable those responsible for the financial and housing collapses; who, as stated earlier, has instituted a competitive – as opposed to holistic and comprehensive –  education initiative; who glorifies community colleges but a) wants to transform them from institutions of higher learning to places where businesses can come in and train their future employees, b) sets unreasonable completion benchmarks as the standard by which the government will determine which colleges get federal grant money, and c) advocates accelerated learning – over meaningful learning – as the way to move our students toward success. Is it any wonder, really, that we have such a distorted view of what it means and takes to be successful?

In the movie, Margin Call, Jeremy Irons, playing the boss of a fictional financial institution that everyone believes is supposed to be Lehman Brothers, tells his employees, in a nut shell, that the keys to success are: “Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.” Somewhere along the lines, we realized that the first two things were just too hard, so we settled on the latter as our M.O. This is not to say that everyone literally cheats to get ahead. What it means is that even if we can’t be the first two things, we can still be successful. We may have to water things down, lower expectations, give everyone a medal, or screw people over, but it’s of no consequence really. In America, everyone has the chance for success.  Not because we work hard and play fair. But, because, in the end, we’ve embraced the idea that it’s not at all about what success really is or should be, but is, instead, about how we can redefine it so that in every possible way, we all come out winners.


About moniacal @ X Rated

On a lifelong journey to be a person in a place...
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6 Responses to The Myth of Success

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    Speaking to your point about love stories…

    (At first I misremembered the clip as a fitting tribute to Davy Jones, but it turns out that Peter Noone sang this one.)

  2. Great post, Monica! You’ve totally nailed the country and it’s attitudes about success and education.

  3. Ben D'Antonio says:

    I’ve just finished reading “Someplace Like America” that traces the lives of families destroyed by U.S. policies over the past 30 years. In each case the people worked hard, played by the rules but now have nothing to show for it. They live in tent communities, ride the trains, sleep under bridges and scrap for food; all the result of companies taking their businesses overseas, NAFTA, CAFTA, immoral tax cuts for the connected, wars, attacks on teachers, state workers and anyone else that is part of a union.

    My dad instilled in me the nobleness of a hard days work and the value of a good education. Based on first hand knowledge that I personally am experiencing those attributes seem not to matter anymore.

    “700 tons of metal a day, sir, you tell me this world’s changed. Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name” (Youngstown – Bruce Springsteen)

  4. fpdorchak says:

    “A nation that views success as screwing each other over and, in turn, rewards people – with huge bonuses and stock options – for doing the screwing.” The “ethics” of big businesses drive me through the roof. And don’t get me started with “everyone’s a winner” or academic redshirting. Where is that fine line anymore?

    Nice post.

  5. Great insight here, Monica! I’m so grateful that my parents raised me to define success by happier standards.

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