The Meaning of Success

etymology, semantics, social issues, success

Where lies the true meaning of success? It being a Monday morning and me feeling a current deficit of it, before going all out in pursuit of it until Monday evening, why not examine first as to what it really might be, or might not, for that matter. That way I can negotiate the afternoon at least without wondering too long and hard about the reason for staying awake for its duration.

Success is valued, that’s for sure, as are – for instance – diamonds. Diamonds, when plucked from a kimberlite deep in the ground, are often dull and ordinary. It is not until they are painstakingly faceted by a diamond cutter that they start to coruscate like magic dust from Tinkerbell’s wand when natural light hits them. This faceting adds to their overall value, monetary and intrinsic. The shape of success, too, is many-sided. And, similar to precious stones and metals, success appears to glitter when viewed from certain angles under a particular light. But beware: all that glitters in not gold. Or diamond, for that matter. Similarly, what reeks of success can be no more than a rotten apple.

So, what is success? It breeds itself, we know that much. Which, I suppose, make success asexual. Or incestuous , perhaps. Which explains why nepotism works every time. Sweet is the smell of it, which imbues it with a nectar-like quality, and therefore able to be manufactured by flowers and processed only by bees. If at first it doesn’t come to you, then try, try again. Which, I suppose, makes success feminine in its nature and a temptress in its ways. It also makes success both non-binding and a slave-driving bitch that can only end in a tragic crime of passion involving either the death of it or the death of you. Harshly sexist as that may sound, the writer William James complained to HG Wells in 1906 that success was a bitch goddess whose squalid interpretation (i.e. of the word itself) was a national disease. We are told success is a secret, which in effect rules out everyone who doesn’t share the secret from ever having it. The most powerful secrets are those kept by one person and one person only. Does that make success autocratic? A bit of a Saudi Arabia or North Korea, if you like. Like any decent secret, though, there is no limit to the lengths we would go to revealing it. Which sets us on a dangerous path toward obsession, never ending well. We hear that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. But given that one side of that coin buys everything while the flip side buys nothing, is success a zero-sum game that, when balanced out, is worth approximately nothing? Those latter-day prophets, the motivational speakers, claim success is the tip of the iceberg, that the 9/10ths of it lying submerged is failure by any other name. Does that mean failure props up success? Or that success is merely the face of failure we can see? In that case, I’ll strive for so much failure that success is bound to peek out above the surface eventually. Guided by this fuzzy logic, I personally am doing tiptop considering how much failure I perceive from my efforts.

Let’s go back a while in time. Words outlive their semantic. That is to say, success has not always meant success in the manner by which we millennium dwellers have become accustomed. It originates with classical Latin, Succedere, to follow/to come closely after. Y succeeds X, 2 succeeds 1, and King Edward VII succeeded Queen Victoria, essentially. In modern Spanish, sucedio means simply it happened. By the 1530s the lexical term arrives newly-formed into English as success meaning good result. From this etymology we can adduce that since the reign of King Henry VIII (a man who presumably cultivated a self-image as a man of unerring success) the word has been subject to such a semantic makeover that no one can truly appreciate its true meaning any more. Or could they ever? So let’s extrapolate on the journey of the term success through two thousand years of history. Were people preoccupied with ‘making it’ in life during the Medieval period? Did Cicero, and his Roman elite, engage in flamboyant oratory and classical debate on the very subject? In an era when success denoted to happen afterwards, what did all go-getters use to describe their meteoric rise in life? Maybe they didn’t, as for much of the pre-modern era people experienced personal achievement as a divine gift and therefore attributable to God’s greater glory. Which leaves success as a very modern invention? Did the masses first have to be offered hope and opportunity before they began to entertain notions of succeeding? Did our collective mindset first have to evolve from life as predetermined (fated) to life as the highest expression of free will before a blueprint for personal success could be drawn up? Were the Victorians the first to demarcate a world of winners and losers in a race to the top, or for so many born into indentured classes, a race to the bottom? Hastening our journey in the 20th century, an age where success is never far from the lips of capitalists, advertisers, and exponents of meritocracy. Ah, the self-made man! The dream that keeps the world in a deep sleep. Like so much that governs our lives today in Western Europe, was the concept of success another mid-20th century American export, part of a larger taxonomy with democracy at its head?

Back to the true meaning of success. Like any image, It means many different things for different people at different times in history. It preoccupies the media, fills the book shelves for autobiographies, peppers the obituaries page, leaves most cold and insecure, and to the movers and shakers or our world it threatens their psyches with delusions of grandeur and megalomania. Hell, the living embodiment of megalomania through the indomitable self-image of success even occupied the White House from 2016 to 2021. Remember when that model of success, Donald J Trump esq., referred to the then British PM, Theresa May, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as losers? His universe consisted of (a few) winners and (a multitude of) losers. And boy, didn’t the masses love him for that? Even his proven failures he attributed to success, demonstrating par excellence that all you need for success (apart from a full head of hair) is an infallible ego.

On a final note, perhaps what success truly comes down to has more to do with who or what we are as human beings, as opposed what we’ve done or accomplished as a individual competitor on a playing field called market capitalism. (N.b. What should we be calling the system of governance under which we toil? liberal democracy?) I’m not sure anymore. I’m not even sure if I have succeeded in getting across my message. Although, I am sure that I have succeeded in getting to the end of it. The article, that is.

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