The Burdens of Success

Successful v Unsuccessful 1

That’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it?  People who have been successful in life want others to succeed.  They cheer when others triumph, and they always pitch in and lend a helping hand, right?

As much as I’d love for it to be true, this statement is utter bunk.  First, there are plenty of successful people who have no interest in making other people successful.  We heard them griping when people started pushing for higher minimum wages.  Oh sure, they tried to disguise their discontent as concern for the lower-middle-class workers on whose backs their mansions were built.  They said things like “Increasing the minimum wage will force us to eliminate jobs.”  But we know what they were really saying, don’t we: “This hurts my bottom line, and I’m not interested in helping those who have been less fortunate than me if it eats into my profits.”

While we’re at it, I’d like to talk about the confusing and conflicting definitions of success presented in each panel of this meme:  In the left panel, the indicator of success seems to be standing on a rectangle.  In the second panel, the Schadenfreude-possessed man is clearly standing on a rectangle, and has therefore met the implied definition of success established by the left panel – and yet the meme implies that this man is not successful.  So now I’m confused: is standing on a rectangle a necessary condition for success, or isn’t it?

Successful v Unsuccessful 2

If I may offer a counter-example, Dan Rather has had a long and very successful career talking about people.  Oh sure, he has talked about ideas as well, but a large portion of his job has been sitting in front of a camera and talking about people: who they are, what rotten stuff they’re doing, and what other people are doing about it.

I get the impression that this series of memes is less concerned about making you successful, and more concerned about making you a generally decent human being.  I would have no issue with these memes if they would just come out and say that; but I’m irritated by the insinuation that being a decent person will automatically make you successful (or, by extension, that successful people are all decent).  These memes seem to say “Look, if you just wouldn’t be so terrible, you’d be successful”, which comes perilously close to poor-shaming.

Successful v Unsuccessful 3

Okay, I have a lot of problems with this one.

First: the “successful” man is going to develop back problems if he keeps sitting like that.  No amount of success is worth constant lumbar pain.  Maybe he should use his computer to search for padded office chairs.

Second:  being asleep is not synonymous with being unsuccessful.  Everybody needs to sleep, successful or otherwise.

Third: Unsuccessful people do not necessarily think they know it all.  That’s an unfair generalization.  The implication is that unsuccessful people are complacent in their ignorance; in fact, there are lots of people who haven’t met the society-approved definition of success, yet who are nevertheless working determinedly to improve themselves.  Sometimes the going is slow; sometimes they are stymied by social barriers.  Sometimes the burden of being “unsuccessful” is a vicious cycle.

Successful v Unsuccessful 4

I have heard this exact same argument being used against disadvantaged minorities; to wit, poor black people need to take responsibility for their problems instead of blaming the white man.  It’s so easy to assume that an unsuccessful person got that way because he lacks motivation, talent, and perseverance.  It’s much harder to cast aside prejudices and consider the fact that some people are systematically prevented from tasting anything like success.  If a person is poor and comes from a poor neighborhood, certain opportunities are not available to him – at least, not without an unfairly steep struggle and a liberal helping of good fortune.  When you look at two people – one who has met only minor resistance in his rise to the top, and one who has had to strive for every inch of ground gained, only to have it snatched away at the whims of the elite – you might understand why the “unsuccessful” person would become bitter.  And yet this meme seeks to punish him for his bitterness, as if it’s not right for him to be angry at constant, systemic injustice.

What a blessing – nay, what a privilege it is to say “I alone am responsible for my failures”.

If I were to make a meme depicting what successful and unsuccessful people look like, it might read like this:

  • Successful People  They generally have a strong work ethic, yes, but also an ethnicity, religion, family background, and contacts that are highly suitable for the society that nurtured them.
  • Unsuccessful People  Take away any one of those things, and you’ve got an unsuccessful person.

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