The Case Against Success

“It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville

I had the privilege last week of speaking to the parents of next year’s 9th grade class at Palos Verdes High School, a rigorous public school where the considerable majority of students take at least one AP course and easily surpass state-determined proficiency levels in English and Math. Perennially recognized as a California Distinguished School, it is, according to the ever-helpful US News & World Report, precisely the 498th best high school in America. (High-tail it to another district if it ever slips to #501, amirite?)

By most people’s reckoning, this is a successful school teeming with successful students poised to lead successful lives. And so it might come as a surprise that my talk was largely devoted to making the case against success.

Before you start grumbling about snowflakes and participation trophies, hear me out: Like justice, or the perfect slice of pizza, success is a concept that fares better in theory than in reality. Everyone agrees that it’s desirable, but can anyone say with certainty what it actually is?

Quick, who’s more successful: Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Judge Judy? If your coffee just shot out your nose, you might not have known that Judge Judy has an estimated net worth of nearly $300M and works all of 52 days a year. (Moreover, her off-camera law career spanned 30 years, so you could think of her stint on TV as an insanely lucrative semi-retirement.)

Does Ginsburg have the more estimable career? Has she, on balance, done more important work? Leaving politics out of it, I doubt most reasonable people would argue otherwise. But it seems to me she loses rather badly on lifestyle.

This exercise, while admittedly a bit silly, nonetheless serves to illustrate an important point: The relevant question isn’t whether which person is more successful, but which person is living the life you’d rather have yourself. And this question, of course, extends far beyond financial portfolios and professional accolades.

What about relationships? What about physical and psychological health? Does anyone truly aspire to be the next J. Paul Getty, who didn’t attend his 12-year-old son’s funeral, or the next Howard Hughes, who died weighing 90 pounds, with five broken-off hypodermic needles buried in his arms?

What about citizenship? Has anyone read about the thuggery of Travis Kalanick (Uber) or the chicanery of Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) and thought to themselves, now that’s an example for my kids to follow?

And yet, when we’re not careful, we can end up subconsciously accepting and acting upon a notion of success that utterly fails to account for many of the things that really matter. When we’re not careful, success can be reduced to keeping score: Will I get into a top-25 college? Will I get a job on Wall Street? Will I get the biggest bonus this year? And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

A friend of a friend recently made his first million dollars. He’s not particularly happy about it. Because his father made his own first million faster. When we keep score, somehow nobody wins.

So what’s the alternative? Forget about success and focus on well-being. Well-being is not some airy-fairy idea someone’s mom invented to make him feel better about himself; it’s a measurable, meaningful construct economists and social scientists have begun using alongside older markers of progress such as per capita GDP. Gallup offers a good definition:

Career well-being: Do I enjoy what I do for a living?

Social well-being: Do I have strong, mutually rewarding relationships?

Physical well-being: Do I have enough energy to do the things I want to do?

Community well-being: Do I feel engaged with the area where I live?

And, of course, there’s financial well-being: Do I have enough money to meet my needs, both today and tomorrow?

This five-pronged definition of well-being calls our attention to a fundamental yet often overlooked truth of life: While it can, and often does, reward us for pursuing achievement, it never fails to punish us for neglecting balance.

Perhaps even more important, focusing on well-being forces us to make choices for ourselves, not according to what we imagine others might think but according to what we truly want. It forces us to engage in self-reflection, to become better, bolder decision-makers. It forces us to live the examined life — the only kind of life, according to Plato, worth living.