A few weeks back, someone forwarded me a quote that stuck in my mind for days. I couldn’t remember who sent it or when, but after some digging through my email, I managed to relocate this gem from a friend by author David Orr, from his 1992 book Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World:
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
Perhaps Orr was suggesting we should kill “success” dead and find a noun with less baggage to replace it. But isn’t there something to be said for celebrating excellence? Most of us agree we should acknowledge hard-working professionals who benefit society, even if they are outnumbered by anonymous people working at unremarkable jobs: folks whose day-to-day labour creates the stage for our best and brightest to shine.
That said, Orr has a point about that tricky term “success.” Consider what it has come to mean in our culture. First and foremost, there’s the identification of success with big bucks and owning lots of stuff. Second, there’s the conflation of success with winning at all costs. Third, there’s the culture of celebrity, where global recognition is only one casting call away. Fourth, there’s outright careerism of “going along to get along.”
Worst of all is when success-seekers hypnotize themselves into a toxic belief system—political, religious or commercial—for the sake of personal advancement. As the author Upton Sinclair observed more than a hundred years ago, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Being healthy and centred without being fabulously rich or famous just doesn’t cut it any more, not with marketers hammering away constantly at the subjective sense of modest contentment. Continued consumption depends on identifying flaws in the consumer’s income, gender, weight, fitness, age, height, skin, smell, hair, feet, upbringing, and mood. Only by cultivating a state of lasting anxiety can the market flog momentary remedies. And in the age of Lingerie Football and the Dragon’s Den, the media formula for underclass success is as retro as the last season of Mad Men: Women, be sex objects. Men, be success objects.
Consider the culture that “success” has given us. At the top of the social pyramid, we have frightening numbers of promise-breaking politicians, careerist judges and lawyers, arrogant doctors, self-censoring media hacks, blinkered law enforcement officials, thieving banksters, ersatz gurus, surgically-altered socialites, blood-doping athletes and data-massaging researchers. A broken system of incentives rewards the star performers for maintaining the status quo, at least for as long as it can be maintained.
UBC professor of psychology Robert D. Hare insists that psychopathy is found in one per cent of the population, a number that rises to four per cent for corporate CEOs. Psychopaths are willing to compete more fiercely for shrinking opportunities, which sometimes gives them an edge over colleagues with functioning moral compasses.
Isn’t it time to chuck our psychopathic models for success, which don’t work that well for the vast majority? It’s not just graduate students under enormous debts with few career prospects that need to reject our Sheen-like notions of “winning.” It’s most of us. There’s a big glitch in the middle-class Matrix, and a blue pill the size of a dinner plate won’t get anyone back home.
There’s nothing really radical or original in these ideas. The idea of a socially sanctioned space for “peacemakers, healers, restorers, and storytellers” informed utopian settlements of the 19th century as much as today’s intentional communities. Orr’s wise words were even presaged at the outset of the 20th century by the great American philosopher William James:
“I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”