What is Success?

Grab the brass ring!

In the most recent episode of my favorite podcast, Back to Work, Merlin Mann makes a point that I needed to hear as I ramp up for another year of teaching, writing, and university activities.

You can listen here, but below is what he says starting around the 1:05:00 mark:

How do you want to spend your day? What is your metric for success? Maybe your metric for success is that you want to be recognized as good at what you do... I think that's a dangerous road to walk down because now your notion of success is completely dependent on strangers and what they feel...

What would it take for you to maybe not worry so much about those labels... and focus on doing something that you really like doing all day... If you worry that you are a fraud, maybe you're in the wrong racket, or maybe you should quit worrying about that and make something that you think is really awesome. How you spend your day everyday is your life. All that stuff that's going to be like this brass ring that's waiting for you after you go around the carousel a certain number of times, it's not real.

The basic question is this: what is success, and how do you know when you have achieved it? Very often, scholars define success as being well-regarded in one's field, highly valued as a colleague, and sought out by students. These are all good things, but are they the proper goals for professional scholars and teachers? Do they define your success?

How do you know when you've "arrived?" Is it becoming a member of a great faculty? Getting tenure? Winning a university teaching award? Having your essay published in a good journal? Those are all things that I have done, and I can honestly tell you that none of them fundamentally changed how I feel about my life.

Post-tenure blues are well-documented, as seen in this piece titled "Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?" If you have spent 6 years working toward a favorable tenure decision, what does it mean when you're still unhappy when you get it? It means that "approval" is a poor definition of "success."

Merlin says that when we define success as "being recognized," our well-being and happiness depend upon what random people think about us. The challenge is to see one's life as a multifacted adventure made up of various work and home experiences. Success must be defined as making things that we love and building relationships that we value.

I am grateful to teach in a University in which it is possible to have this approach to work. There is freedom here to pursue the kind of scholarship that I find most valuable. And the community is small enough that we can know each other and appreciate our value without defining each other by merit categories and check boxes. Many of us come from graduate programs that value productivity over well-being, and competition over relationships. There is no reason to import that ethos here. We're better than that.