America’s Concept of Success
by Ron Dultz
If someone were to inform you that a man living in America is quite successful, what would you infer from that? It is likely you would conclude he is successful financially, or accomplished and highly regarded in his career of choice, or has achieved a position of fame, power or authority within his society, or some combination of these. This is confirmation of the fact that in America success has come to be measured primarily by two different indicators:
(1) By what a person has acquired, as measured by the person’s
material wealth and material assets.
(2) By what a person has accomplished, in terms of:
a. the person’s professional expertise or know-how.
b. the person’s fame, power or authority within his or her
Conspicuously absent from these concepts of success is the achievement of outstanding character – which is best demonstrated by one’s behavior and deeds. Outward acts of kindness, fairness, generosity and good will, as well as demonstrations of common sense, awareness and understanding are good examples of character. A person’s qualities of character are the person’s qualities as a human being. In my opinion, nothing a person can acquire or accomplish will bring lasting honor unless the person is successful by virtue of his or her qualities as a human being. To my previous list of two indicators, I shall therefore add a third indicator by means of which success can be measured:
(3) By a person’s overall qualities as a human being, which are best
demonstrated by the person’s behavior and deeds.
American society acknowledges this third type of success, but does not consider it to be an essential ingredient of success. One’s foremost objectives in life, according to current American values, should be: to acquire material wealth, possessions and assets; to gain professional expertise or know-how; and, if possible, fame, power and a position of authority within society. Secondarily, each of us is encouraged to be a good person, guided by common sense; but the American society does not offer adequate definitions or models of what it means to be a good person, or a sensible one, nor does it adequately scrutinize people for these qualities.
We are all familiar with the basic ethical and moral imperatives which have long pointed us toward goodness and exemplary behavior. We all know, for example, that stealing, cheating, lying and killing are wrong. But these moral and ethical imperatives have been insufficient to quell the onslaught of corruption, crime and greed that permeate our society. Something else is needed.
I believe that chief among the things that are needed are the following: first, a critical reexamination of our society’s basic concept of success; second, the construction of a new concept of success based upon sophisticated moral and ethical ideals and principles suitable to a modern society; and third, the introduction of this new and better concept of success into all sectors and segments of our society.
In my opinion, one’s success in life should not be measured primarily by one’s financial holdings or other material assets, nor by one’s professional expertise, nor by one’s position of authority or power, nor by the prestige or fame attached to one’s name. Instead, one’s success in life should be determined first and foremost by one’s qualities as a human being, as demonstrated by one’s behavior and deeds. This type of success is so vital to the well being of a society or community that it eclipses all other forms of success in meaning and merit.
The American society has made the fatal error of formulating and promoting concepts of success which are not predicated upon a person’s qualities as a human being, nor upon the good a person does. If consideration is given in America to the quality of one’s character, as demonstrated by one’s behavior and deeds, it is incidental to one’s other accomplishments; and, furthermore, it is left open to interpretation. In other words, no attempt is made to determine if a person’s “good name” is fabricated or genuinely deserved before labeling the person a success.
When one considers that acts of goodness and evil are both abundantly to be found throughout our society, and within our communities, and that the former produces health and happiness and the latter produces pain, misfortune and misery; it seems implausible to me that any society can deem a person successful before ascertaining the quality of the person’s character, as demonstrated by the person’s behavior and deeds. To call a person successful merely because the person has acquired vast wealth or considerable material assets, or because the person has achieved expertise in some professional endeavor, or because the person holds a position of authority or power within society, or because much prestige or fame is attached to the person’s name, is to ignore the true essence and meaning of success. In a sane, wholesome and constructive society, one’s success must be determined first by measuring the quality of one’s character, as demonstrated by one’s behavior and deeds.
It is immoral and incorrect for a society to heap praise upon an individual because of the person’s professional expertise, or because of the person’s material wealth and material assets, or because of the person’s position of power or authority, or because the person is famous if that person exhibits mediocre or inferior character traits and behavior. A person who is not extremely compassionate and caring, and who does not demonstrate a great deal of generosity and good will toward his or her fellow human beings, and who does not exhibit character traits and behavior which are exemplary and praiseworthy should not be adjudged successful because, in the most profound sense, the person is yet a failure.
When a society heaps accolades upon people due to accomplishments based upon inferior or inadequate concepts of success, and promotes inferior or inadequate concepts of success within its schools, within its government, within its media, within its business and industry, and within all other sectors of the society, that society is planting its soil with the seeds of evil and incompetence. It should not, then, surprise the society when those seeds grow and mature into widespread acts of evil, greed and incompetence because, in truth, the society itself fostered evil, greed and incompetence by promoting false, harmful, inferior and inadequate standards of success.
If America were yet the wholesome and exemplary country it is purported to be, there is little doubt that the prime examples of success in the media would not be those people who have achieved the greatest material wealth, nor those people who wield the most authority, power or influence within their society, nor even those people who have the most professional expertise. Instead, the prime examples of success would be those people whose character is most exemplary and whose deeds are most beneficial. The kindly postman who hands out sandwiches to neighborhood derelicts on weekends (there used to be one in my community) would become famous in place of the highly paid corporate executive who makes beautiful speeches but treats his labor force poorly. The housewife who is always broke because she feeds the neighbor’s children as well as her own would become famous. The volunteers across the land who donate their labor whenever it is needed would all become famous. All people who demonstrate behavior of great goodness, kindness, common sense or wisdom would be considered far more worthy of recognition than those who are rich and powerful. In place of the once popular TV program entitled “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” there would be one entitled, perhaps, “Deeds of the Good and Kind.”
Why does America promote inadequate, inferior and harmful standards of success? I do not believe it is entirely by chance or accident. I believe it is in part by design, for the purpose of permitting those who are in power to exploit the American society and its people for personal gain with impunity. If it is primarily, or predominantly, materialistic and acquisitive concepts of success which reign supreme in America, and are condoned in the media and throughout our society, than the exploiters and plunderers are encouraged to manipulate and maneuver. Chief among the likely opportunists would be those people who now hold the seats and reigns of power within our society; for they are the ones best positioned to manipulate and exploit our society and its people for personal gain and private ends.
Whether our society’s inadequate and inferior concepts of success have been introduced by people in control of the seats and reigns of power within our society, and their predecessors, so that they can exploit and plunder unimpeded, or whether our society’s inadequate and inferior concepts of success have been fashioned by our society’s overall ignorance and immaturity, the error must be corrected if our society is ever again to be a wholesome and happy one.
All inferior and inadequate concepts of success must be completely rooted out of our society. The concepts of success indicated by (1) and (2)b. in this essay must be completely abolished. No longer should a rich, famous or powerful person be deemed successful simply because of being rich, famous or powerful. Certainly (2)a. – the person’s professional expertise and know-how – is a legitimate and meaningful form of success. But it is far less important than (3) – a person’s qualities as a human being.
A man may have achieved great professional expertise in an important profession, yet remain a scoundrel and a swindler, or be indifferent to those whom he could easily help without injury to himself, or behave in a way that is not a good example to others. Such a person, despite his professional expertise, is yet profoundly a failure.
Henceforth, our society’s concept of success must be predicated first upon indicator (3) in this essay, which clearly implies that no genuine or lasting success can be imputed to a person who does not demonstrate behavior which can be consistently determined to be praiseworthy and worthy of emulation. An exemplary person must be truly good, kind and fair, and must exhibit a great deal of good will, understanding and common sense. The person must, above all, be a friend to his or her society, trying to help when help is needed. This does not mean the person ignores his or her own needs and wants; but it does mean that in the process of satisfying them, the person does not hurt or harm other people. It is essential to constantly remind ourselves that a master criminal, habitual evil doer, greed-motivated, cruel or harmful individual can be a Congressman, the President of a University, a captain of industry, a media mogul, a millionaire or a sports hero; and that such a person is certainly not successful by any stretch of the imagination, and should not be touted as successful by our media, our leaders, our schools or the general public.
We must always remind ourselves that the potential to abuse power increases as one’s position of authority and power increases; therefore, instead of automatically revering people in positions of power and authority, or people who have vast material assets, fame or prestige, we must remember that they are the ones we should examine most assiduously, from every conceivable angle, leaving no stone unturned, for possible misuse of the means of power at their disposal. In any society, it is those who wield the most authority and power, and who have the greatest means at their disposal, who are the greatest potential threat.
Our society has for so long fostered, encouraged and popularized inferior and inadequate concepts of success that we should all be ashamed. In addition, we must all realize that our society is doomed unless we completely undo this mistake. If we do not want to end up a nation of pirates, bent on exploiting one another and being proud of it, we must restore a system of values and ethics to our society; and a good place to start would be tailoring all our ideas of success primarily to (3), and secondarily to (2)a. in this essay.
Naturally, establishing a superior concept of success, and disseminating it throughout our society, would be a lifeless and empty endeavor if attitudes and activities were not altered to conform to it. But without having first improved upon our society’s concept of success, there will continue to be no meaningful standard of behavior toward which we, as a people, can aim; and there will continue to be no adequate means by which we, as a people, can judge our fellow citizens, our leaders, our organizations, our institutions and our laws. And, most important of all, we will not have proper examples of success for our children to emulate.