Much of the news last week focused on a scandal in which seemingly successful people lied, cheated, and bribed to get their children into elite universities—places that are supposed to both represent success and prepare their students for futures filled with it. I won’t bother to rehearse the sordid details, which you already know as well as I do. I do want to pause, though, to reflect on the sort of “success” these people seem to be chasing, and why it really isn’t anything any of us should want.
For these people, success evidently means no more than acquiring a certain set of social markers: a high test score, a degree from a fancy university, a pretty picture to post and pass off as the truth. Later in life, this set of markers would presumably expand to include a big house, a fancy car, a job with the right firm, invites to the best parties, and whatever else gives off an air of superiority.
After all, success for these people clearly lies mainly in the eyes of their beholders. It has everything to do with conspicuous consumption and the appearance of prestige and power. It has nothing to do with intrinsic merit or actual accomplishment.
It’s not about hard-won wisdom or even natural intelligence.
It’s not about the ability to ace a test though a combination of skill, grit, and grace under pressure.
It’s not about athletic prowess built on thousands of hours of practice.
It’s not about building real relationships through shared toil, service, or sacrifice.
It has nothing to do with the justified satisfaction that follows from overcoming one’s own limitations and achieving some worthwhile goal. Instead, it’s just an aura to be carefully cultivated, a game at which the privileged and clever can cheat.
I’m sure it’s clear from my tone just how inverted and wrong I think this notion of success is. Sadly, I also think it’s fairly prevalent in the present era, and not just among the cheaters caught up in this scandal. Even if most of us don’t quite believe it, our culture continually puts forward the idea that success can be purchased, put on, and showed off. And with that in mind, I’d like to offer some corrective suggestions.
Real success doesn’t consist of beauty or wealth or stature, much less the mere appearance of these. On the contrary, real success can often be pretty ugly—not to mention downright humbling. Why? Because real success is all about overcoming hardship. It turns up, almost exclusively, in the aftermath of struggle.
Real success isn’t the medal you get for winning an Olympic marathon. It’s running your personal best time, in any race, at any distance, at any age. It’s also failing to run your best time but (say) pushing through an injury to reach the finish line or stopping to help a fallen competitor along the way.
Real success isn’t having a big bank account. It’s paying your own way out of debt—or helping others carry theirs.
It’s not a performance review, a test score, or a grade-point average. It’s the brain power you build by working and studying—and especially by struggling to learn something new.
Perhaps most importantly, real success is not a reward you get for beating others out. It’s what you begin to experience when you lift others up.
This sort of success isn’t in the eyes of the beholders; it’s in the muscles and mindsets and meanings you build through your own efforts. And it’s in the deep and abiding relationships of trust and care you build with others by showing up, doing the work, and carrying at least your own share of the burden.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to impress others. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing good grades, good test scores, or degrees from good schools—just as there’s nothing wrong with wanting a big house or a beautiful smile or fancy friends. What’s wrong is equating any of these apparent markers of success with what really matters, with what has the potential to bring you real fulfillment.
At the end of the day, the appearance of success is fleeting, as is the feeling of having succeeded. Pictures fade. People stop caring where you got your degree. Someone else always has a bigger house, a fancier car, a better job. And the accolades and celebrations always come to an end, even when you’ve fully earned them.
What lasts is just what you build into yourself—and with others— along the way. It’s a bunch of old-fashioned-sounding stuff that’s basically invisible, and all the more real and important for that: “character,” “honor,” “strength,” “trust,” “respect,” “friendship.”
You can’t cheat your way to any of these ends. You have to show up and put in the work. And you have to help the other people who show up and put in the work, too. You have to push yourself to be your very best. And you have to do it without pushing them down. On the contrary, you have to lift them up along with you.
In practice, this can be extraordinarily difficult. But the basic idea is still pretty simple. We forget it at our own peril, and at the risk of failing the only thing that really matters–not a test or a task or a job, but each other and hence ourselves.