On the Toxic Definitions of Success and Worth

On the Toxic Definitions of Success and Worth

It’s heartening to know that no matter what you’re experiencing, countless others across time and geography have felt similarly. In my struggle to find an internal well of self-worth and divest myself from definitions of success that facilitate burnout, I’ve found others whose struggles reflect mine. We all worry that we don’t matter, and in the face of human history and achievement, there are more lightning bug lives, those which twinkle briefly but are most brilliant when beheld as a group. So, why do we fear mediocrity and the mundane? We like to imagine we’re the Alexander Hamilton rather than a chorus member in this story, and while the hubristic among us overstate their worth, many others are flattened by the weights of expectation and aspiration. 

I’ve met far too many brilliant people who tie their worth to their output, far too many interesting, poignant thoughts silenced by the futility of being heard. It brings me to two dueling conclusions: output, productivity, is inherently performance because it requites acknowledgement, and therefore falls into the trap of external validation. If one makes art, does it still count if it’s never seen? Secondly, the stories we share in this modern Western folklore celebrate celebrity, outliers, and a patriarchal definition of success that leave most people with the choice to struggle towards unattainable goals, resign in futility, or find alternative finish lines. 

Richard Branson, the poster child for entrepreneurship. Credit: Unsplash.

Existential Success and External Validation 

The examples we have for success in Westernized culture rely more on luck than brilliance. Politicians who marry into wealth or were born wealthy themselves, actors who are scouted at their local bars, executives who were legacies at Ivy League schools, writers for whom the gatekeepers of highbrow literature step aside, for every one of these there are countless stories of those with equivalent or superior talent confined to professions that feed their bellies rather than their passions. The greatest indicator of one’s potential for success is having been born rich. A coincidence. Luck. 

The media’s agenda setting role in cultural discourse grants it the power to choose what stories to run, which people you hear about, which examples of success you see. Greta Thurnberg has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism at 16, an amazing feat that makes me hopeful for a future in which a global push towards radical climate action is possible. Meanwhile, at 26, I’ve accomplished so little that the cumulative negative effects I’ve made on the planet as an American (even one mindful of her consumption) greatly outweighs any positive impact, so the environment would be objectively better off had I never existed. I’d wager that most people reading this want to be a Greta, but are more likely a Mary, and maybe we need to be more vocal about our experiences, so we feel less alone in our existential journey. Because it certainly would be a lonely world if only the rich or famous could justify their existences. 

We admire and aspire yet still feel personal failure when we get by and do our bests. We need to redefine success such that it is decoupled from fame and wealth, that it has little to do with our personal value. Perhaps the concept of success has become so toxic that it’s no longer relevant, and we need to find another way to contextualize our lives within the tapestry of human history. 

I admit, part of my struggle comes from a distain for the suburbs, that easy, homogenous, ritualistic, conservative, Olive Garden community. The American Dream reimagined for middle class whites who find comfort, rather than boredom, in their vision of normalcy. A new car or an in-ground pool feel more like giving up than making it big to me. No child looks up to their first-grade teacher, eyes sparkling, declaring “I want to be a CPA for an uncaring, exploitative corporation so I can afford purebred dogs and a BMW.” I also realize it’s unfair to point to someone doing their best to make life suck a little less and suggest that their participation in a problematic system is a personal failure rather than means of survival. Nevertheless, the success I and many others chase is an existential kind, something we can point to and declare “I did that.” I matter. However, none of us can afford to wait until cultural or capitalistic gatekeepers say so to believe it. 

Cult of Productivity 

The world is lousy with girl bosses, bros whose dating profiles vaguely proclaim them “entrepreneurs,” and people who wear their business like a badge of honor. We’re not only chasing a freak coincidence into success, but we correlate productivity with value. 

The idea of being a “productive member of society” has been a part of the American zeitgeist for decades. Conservatives use it to justify cutting social programs that help the poor and to demand that those on welfare take drug tests and jump through bureaucratic hoops to receive the help they desperately need. America still hasn’t gotten past the wealth gospel of the Puritans, that wealth and success are a reward for good morals, and vice versa. Bootstrap your way out of poverty, systematic racism, disability, mental health issues, discrimination, cycles of poverty, a difficult job market, or abusive relationships, or you’re labeled a failure. 

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On toxic definitions of success and self-worth
Positive mantras are often found in a girl boss tool kit. Credit: Unsplash.

I’m currently working as a clerk at an arthouse movie theatre while looking for my next professional position, and I can’t help but see myself through the eyes of our customers. They call me sweetie or joke that I’m not good at math; meanwhile I’m paying off over $100,000 of student debt from a combined six years education while working multiple jobs to fulfill both my student debt obligations and my passions. Culture dictates that we associate our work with worth, and for many, it’s a free pass to exert some control over another human. In that moment, I operate as a cashier, not an equal. 

The side-hustle productivity culture is derived from a need for doing work we can identify with and be proud of. Marxist theory suggests that many workers now sell their time (work on an assembly line making one part of a chair for 40 hours) rather than their talents (a woodworker designing and fabricating one whole chair) which leads to dissociation from value and work. For many of us, if we’re replaceable in our jobs, we feel valueless. However, when taken to its extreme, as it so often is, the assumption is that if you’re not working, you’re failing. 

An artist who works a day job or can’t produce as much as a prolific professional is deemed less an artist, while they’re likely more artist than the pop-art icons wielding studios of artisans who produce their work (Damien Hirst, looking at you). If, after an unfulfilling day of work, someone chooses to watch Netflix and drink wine, it makes them no less serious about their passion than their neighbor who stays up all night burning their candle from both ends. We need to stop prioritizing productivity before mental health. Production is performance, but the things that make us likable or admirable to others isn’t necessarily our workaholism, but our struggles of courage, grit, or compassion. I admit, while I will vehemently insist that Western culture must learn to value and teach empathy, I would consider it an insult if the most someone could say of me was that I was compassionate. Unlike intelligence or creativity, it’s not viewed as a quantifiable, respectable skill, but an easy choice. 

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Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos valued for her ‘vision’ and work ethic, saw a spectacular fall from grace after being charged with fraud. Here she is interviewed by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor at NBC News at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Conference. Photograph by Krista Kennell via Flickr.

Unlearning capitalist, patriarchal assumption of competition

For many of us, we feel our personal worth is tied to how well we do at our job, or how many side hustles we have, or whether we work in our chosen field because we’re told to question ourselves rather than the narrow, capitalistic, patriarchal definition of success. There’s a pernicious belief that success, be it financial, artistic, or personal, is a scarce resource that demands competition. Yet we keep trying, and we devalue the small, incremental successes we see in ourselves while overstating others’ accomplishments.

Divesting from competition is nearly impossible to do, especially in shrinking or specialized fields like writing or political advocacy (seems I’ve chosen great paths). It stems from ingrained tendencies towards gatekeeping and the conceit of those at the top that they’ve earned their spot through work alone, rather than a series of connections, coincidences, and chance. Workers anxious about standing out or getting their foot in the door are less likely to challenge systematic practices, demand better wages, or ask for time off. It’s a system that allows millions of companies to get away without paying their writers or designers. 

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Falling into the anxiety trap isn’t a personal failing, it’s a natural side effect of exposure to this environment. Redefining success means letting go of any assumption of control over the reaction others will have to us. Didn’t get that job? You have no idea whose cousin or son also applied or was promised the same position. Don’t think your art is going anywhere? You don’t have the privilege to create without worrying about how you’ll pay the bills. Never get published? No one cares who you are, not because you’re a bad writer, but because you’re not already a personal brand. Failure or mediocrity is so often not the fault of the person, but systematic processes that lead to our narrow, patriarchal idea of success. 

Working hard and being busy has become a badge of honour. Credit: Unsplash.

Cosmically, you’re doing fine; we all are. The least, and most anyone can ever do, is ultimately inconsequential in the face of eternity, but rather than despair, use that to relax. All the competition, all the self-doubt and comparison won’t matter after the passing of a cosmic blink. When there’s no arbitrary morality or dictum, the only questions of importance are how we feel, how we choose to live our lives. All we can do is endeavor to make and do things that bring us and those we care about joy. The race is rigged and the only prize at the finish line is one we can’t enjoy. Instead of lamenting a place in the middle, enjoy the run.

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Title image of Theranos ex-CEO Elizabeth Holmes by Krista Kennell via Flickr.


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