Success, Redefined for a Better World

success in the form of community
communal “success”

I’m willing to bet that you and nearly everyone you know defines “success” in terms of winners and losers.  Competition.  A zero-sum game.  Success as a form of natural selection.  Survival of the fittest. By the looks of things, we define “success” in terms of power, dominance, even violence.

It all reminds me of how when I was twelve the unwelcome outcome of a soccer match provoked grown men—one, a friend’s father, the other, our “rival team’s” coach—to thrown down in fisticuffs.

Or how I witnessed two twenty-somethings cuss and hurl rocks at another twenty-something for doing little more than wearing a Flyers jersey—this was Pittsburgh during the NHL playoffs after all.


Tom Vanderbilt, author, among other works, of the book “Traffic“, observed that “we certainly don’t become better people behind the wheel of a car.”  Ain’t that the truth! But why is it? Seems driving is about competition, the expectation to take that spot, to go fast.  And of course, faster than those poor people who ride the bus, their bikes, or use their feet.

So it is: in our culture, success is a reduction. It necessarily involves winners and losers. Champions and “delicate snowflakes.”  

Just the other day I got a work email from UNC’s PR office—mind you, a public University charged with educating the people of this state—inviting me to a “Beat Duke Party.” The email’s authors described UNC’s competition with Duke as the “biggest rivalry on Earth.”

Competition surrounds us. It provides the humming background noise of our day to day lives.  We might as well mark our calendars around contests and sporting events.

To kick off the year, we have the drama of American football.  Then we hold competitions within competitions by filling out company-provoked “brackets” for NCAA’s  “March Madness.” Ironically, springtime invites us to obsess over ice hockey playoffs.

As spring slips into the summer, we swing our head to the rhythms of tennis, golf, basketball.  We start the tennis fête in France (the French Open) and bounce back home for our very own U.S. Open. We then fill bleachers to chant the names of paid sportsmen in the NBA Finals.

Creeping deeper into summer, the more cosmopolitan among us might gather to drink European beer—typically Pilsner—and watch futbol ala the Champions League.  And at long last, we gear up for the all-American baseball season. Play ball!

And that’s only sports. Outside the arena, the field, the court, we are exposed to—or partake in—sundry contests and competitions:

  • Children learn about “success” from teachers and administrators who frame it in terms of class “rank”, or “winning” the spelling bee or science or math contests or civics debates.
  • Others socialize children to think and behave as though their schools’ football and basketball and baseball and soccer and track teams are better than and superior to their rival schools’ teams.
  • We watch TV shows about cutthroat competitions for the Throne,  playful dance offs, and fighting over available singles.
  • We succumb to the bite of nationalism when we cheer on “team America” as they face “those others” in summer and winter Olympics.

I won’t deny that sports and competitions can build teams and character.  I myself played baseball, basketball, soccer, track, and volleyball growing up. These and other sports inspire the creation of “tribal identities”: “We are Penn State!” One problem, though: too often, the delirious tribe breaches the city walls. Recall the Penguins fans casting rocks as the Flyers fan.  Same state.  Different corners, different tribe.

And so it is with the current “presidential” administration. This recently instated shitgibbon and his knuckle-dragging sycophants ring American ears with “losers” and “winners” and “winning.” A zero-sum game. A dog-eat-dog globe.

This reverence for “the best”, for winners and losers, echoes our misconception of biological evolution itself.  Scientists—underappreciated people seeking to actually understand our world—have more recently discovered how much of evolution involves cooperation, co-evolution.  The all-familiar “survival of the fittest” mantra still holds, yet cooperation plays a starring role too.

Let us not forget that most of what we hold dear as a culture didn’t spring forth from competition or dominance.  Public libraries and parks, place-based school houses and river-spanning bridges emerged from a cooperative spirit.

But still. Competition and contests of all flavors crowd out community in schools.  They play on our fear of scarcity. They provoke our darker side, our Jungian shadow.

But what if instead of the traditional “always a winner and always a loser” way of conceiving success, we recast it as involving those things that make us feel alive, healthy, more mature, and more competent?

In order to get to a place where success evokes images of “lifting all boats”, we need to confront and challenge the witless instigations to best each other all the time.  Really, must we be in a constant state of competition with one another?

Much like ferns and shrubs thriving on the forest floor, many people living further down the “ladder of success” practice collaboration, cooperation, coordination. They champion personal and communal growth and maturity.  Health imbues their work, their “bread labor.” They toil and learn side by side, arm in arm, deepening their bonds,  discovering and re-discovering purpose.

Reflecting on their life’s work, their “good practice“, they know success when they see and feel it.  Touch and taste it. Success springs forth from the hands of these doers and makers; these self-determined people who promote growth and know in their bones what it’s like to feel alive in this world and in this time.

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  • Jefftown37

    How important is humility in moving beyond unhealthy levels of competition? It seems that when our primary aim is projecting an image of success, energy that could have been put toward being successful, whatever the recognition might end up being, is wasted.

    Humility also helps us screen answers to the question, “At what should we be successful?” As you imply, success is not merely applied to personal growth, but also communal quality of life.

    How powerful it is when we turn our own competition/opposition into a request for partnership! Humility helps us recognize that we can’t go it alone.