Success in its various forms may be one of the most desired goals or outcomes. We are constantly surrounded by representations of the meaning of success, in the media from our sporting superstars, business tycoons or the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous. Success as a concept is difficult to define. In its application, it is difficult to determine the process to achieve success, or to be successful. For many people the idea of success can dictate how they plan and live their life, from how they define their self worth and value, role in society, future dreams, and aspirations (Frankl, 2000).
In considering the real meaning of success and the influence of differing generational, gender and socio-political expectations, let us consider the stories of three remarkable Australians.
Pamela is a woman from the generation of ‘Baby Boomers’, the prosperous decade following World War II (aged between 47 and 65). This was a generation that expected the world to improve, that challenged the definition of traditional values, with increasing access to education, consumerism and subsequent affluence (Owram, 1997). Pamela was no different, while as a child she was not aware of the implicit messages of her generation, but she saw those with affluence, the nouveau riche, as happy with social capital. She equated the meaning of success to having money, friends, and material possessions.
Pamela’s parents were from the ‘Greatest Generation’ and believed in the value and power of education. They reinforced the idea that ‘if you did your best, you could succeed’. It is likely that education was viewed as a tool to advance, as many people of the Great Generation were not able to complete their education, due to the impact of the war. As such Pamela’s parents made financial sacrifices to enable Pamela and her siblings the opportunity to attend private school education. Despite the increasing access to education, the traditional roles of men and women were still a large part of the social construction of identity, gender roles and society. This meant for Pamela that success in the professional domain entailed a career as either a nurse or a teacher. Pamela became a nurse and flourished in the medical environment, viewing continued education as a method to obtain social connections and the affluence that she connected with success and happiness. As a consequence of her professional achievement, Pamela felt good about herself, a feeling of self worth that she also equated to success. Pamela had great plans. As a young adult she was prosperous in many domains of her life, from education, career and relationships.
Pamela like many from her generation likened the idea of being successful as ‘having the whole package’. This meant a career, social capital, but also marriage and children. With this came the starry-eyed idea that if Pamela could find an intelligent, good looking, well connected man, who would love her for who she was, then she could achieve anything and be successful. While success started out for Pamela as achieving a career, it became something so much more, it meant being loved and belonging.
Now many years on, Pamela reflects with wisdom about the many guises of success. She now views success as much simpler, and that rather than success a prerequisite of happiness, happiness in and of itself is success. This means every moment from a single interaction, to caring and connecting with other people, to enjoying nature, the written word, music, family, and being healthy. While Pamela may have once been concerned about whether others saw her as successful, she realizes now that success is looking beyond material things, and instead it includes accepting and challenging herself to be the very best she can be.
Don is a gentleman, facing his 91st year of life. He is part of a generation termed the ‘Greatest Generation’, as men and women of this era are considered to have fought and given their lives in World War II, “not for the fame and recognition but rather because it was the right thing to do” (Brokaw, 1998). In some way Don’s life encapsulates the very essence of the Greatest Generation. Don was a young man who grew up through the Great Depression and joined the Australian Navy as a seaman at barely 18 years old, serving in total 20 years for his country. He fought in WWII aboard the corvette HMAS Castlemaine and witnessed not only the loss of thousands of lives, but the atrocities of war. Don’s family originated from rural Victoria and after the war Don returned to his landlocked community to work on the farm. Don outlived his late wife, but they enjoyed a long marriage of over 50 years, with 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. Don’s connection and ability to relate to people of all ages is evident when you see him playing with his great-grandchildren.
Don is heavily involved in the community, for which he was awarded the title of Citizen of the Year in 2003 for the Campaspe Shire of Victoria. Major Councilor John Elborough described Don’s investment in the community as “tireless”, where despite his busy schedule he volunteers his time generously. He is a member of various community committees and trusts, president of the R.S.L, and you will find him visiting local schools to share his experiences, to cooking three course dinners and bringing it around to the homes of those who are restricted in their independence due to their health.
Don is now a man of the minority, with people over the age of 85 making up 1.8% of the Australian population, with even fewer in this age group of men compared to women over the age of 90 (29% men vs. 71% women) (2011 Australian Census). Unlike many men of his age, Don continues to be able to drive out to the farm each day and nothing stops him from being able to complete the often long and strenuous demands of farm life. To add to Don’s long list of accomplishments, he has written three books and is currently writing an autobiography of his life. Don’s life provides a unique insight into what motivates or drives a person. It is difficult to identify what makes Don successful, and though his list of accomplishments are indeed honorable, he seems to be held in high regard because of his character and values. While success (however you define it) may be important, my impression from talking to those who know Don, is that it is not success that motivates Don, even though someone of his statue would be held up by many as an incredible man, if not a hero.
Gail Kelly, or perhaps more widely recognized in the corporate world, as former CEO of Westpac. Gail is a woman from the generation of “baby boomers” who epitomizes societies’ ideals of success, based on socially constructed ideas of wealth, knowledge, power, and social status. However Gail’s success and ability to rise as high as she did in her career is based on something much more. Originally born in South Africa, she later immigrated to Australia in 1997 with her husband. Gail began her professional career as a teacher in Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon realizing that she did not have her heart in teaching, she made a decision to pursue a job as a bank teller at Nedcor bank. Early on Gail was identified as an asset to the bank and she was fast-tracked through an accelerated training program. Within six years she had begun a Master of Business Administration whilst pregnant with her first child, graduating 1 year later with a distinction. Three years later, she was appointed head of human resources at Nedcor bank, only five months after the birth of her triplets. Despite having four children under 10, she held successfully a number of general manager positions at Nedcor before moving to Australia.
Between 1997 and 2014, Gail Kelly held general manager or CEO positions at three major Australian banks, with the Australian Banking and Finance magazine awarding her Best Financial Service Executive in 2003 and 2004. In light of her success in the banking sector and ability to increase the bank’s profitability she was ranked by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world, holding a top ranking of 8th in the world in 2010. Gail recently remarked in her speech at the St George Foundation in August 2014 that she has not been immune to lapses in self-confidence, at times revealing the impact of the threat of failure, and not being good enough. Gail however has not let limiting beliefs hold her back and instead she sought out the support of those around her. Whilst Gail perhaps seems to have it all, a highly successful career, a supportive husband and family, this has not happened by chance. Gail first and foremost has worked extremely hard and attributes her success to seven key life lessons; (1) choose to be positive, (2) do what you love, and love what you do, (3) be courageous and embrace opportunities or challenges, (4) ensure that your team is made up of the right people, (5) nurture the ability to communicate your vision and purpose, (6) practice generosity of spirit, and (7) live a meaningful life.
The Social Construction of Success
To consider formalized definitions of success, the Oxford Dictionary defines success as “an accomplishment of an aim or purpose” or more specifically “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status”. Whereas the success of the three remarkable Australians described above is not found in their accomplishments, but in their character.
Therefore we might conclude that in simple terms, ‘success’ is merely the outcome of achieving a goal, but that to be ‘successful’, this is a far more complex state of being.
We are born into a culture and a society that is constructed by social norms and expectations. It is these unwritten, invisible rules that originally guide us during our development as to what is important and what is less important. Common examples in Westernized society include the importance of being educated, getting married, and having children as benchmarks of success. Conversely ideals in other societies are not always the same, for example traditional Aboriginal life is more focused on the family unit and wider community, about connections, wellbeing, and living one with the land.
It seems that the benchmarks of success change from culture to culture, but also generation to generation.
Despite the social construction of what is success, there is variance as to how people plan their lives, based on what they value or find to be a meaningful purpose. There however seems to be an underlying assumption that success, however you define the concept, is a prerequisite to happiness and life satisfaction. Perhaps this link between happiness and success, that is often implicitly made, is one of the most misunderstood and incorrect assumptions that we hold as humans. If success is simply the accomplishment of a goal, then how will this lead to enduring life happiness? The experience of accomplishment or mastery in the short-term can create positive feelings, but does this really represent what we are seeking? The answer is commonly no.
This is a sample taken from a chapter in the fantastic success book, Secrets of Success. Available from Amazon