Sunday, 26 April 2015

The measure of success

One of my closest friends was recently promoted to a senior position at his job. I can certainly attest to his stakhanovite work ethic and commitment that propelled him to his new post. Nevertheless, he recalled how not working in a white collar industry, which may have been deemed a natural progression following his undergraduate degree, wasn’t always perceived with universal favour by those around him. Nonetheless, working within his field he found himself in an industry where he was able to apply himself and help and motivate others around him. Furthermore, enjoying a job he’s also good at, he eventually realised he’d found his niche and he holds no regard for the views of those who felt his choice of employment didn’t conform to their ideal of a successful career. Not to mention, his career ascent has undoubtedly justified his decision and refuted that of others. It’s a testament to his conviction in his own pursuit of happiness that hasn’t been side-tracked by the views of others.

For most, that disregard of society’s validation of their success does not come easy. On the contrary, they spend their lives chasing it and it characterises their decisions and their life’s direction. Often, that has consequences of suppressed unhappiness and discontent for many as they seek acceptance and endorsement based on society’s principles rather than their own. However, given our perception of our achievements should be subjective, how and why have so many people been driven to gauge this against society’s measure rather than their own?

Similarly to many of my peers, I was the first within my family to attend university. We typically read traditionally academic subjects and our families were undoubtedly proud of us achieving a milestone that hadn’t been achieved in generations before us. That pride inadvertently soon became pressure. And as we neared graduation, we felt our next logical step was a job within a field that seemingly complemented our higher education and what our families and society anticipated. What we didn’t appreciate, and weren’t afforded the perspective of, was what would bring us fulfilment and job satisfaction. The consideration of going into a field where our work would be meaningful and enjoyable was ashamedly secondary to what might be a job that ticked superficial boxes of success. This view of success was typically manifested by the white collar, corporate image which years later I realised in no way guaranteed fulfilment and for some, actual misery.

Sadly, the impact of society’s measure of success upon us is even more prevalent in the most personal aspects of our lives. We feel the need to adhere to society’s modus operandi. And should we not conform to that, we’re left feeling a failure. In a previous post, I wrote about the Asian pursuit of marriage and the feeling of being compelled to find a partner particularly once one has hit a certain age. Of course, this isn’t exclusive to Asians and many cultures and individuals feel that marriage is an indicator of one’s personal success. But marriage isn’t a prerequisite for one to feel complete as an individual and it should be a personal choice. Yet society has managed to infiltrate that choice for many. Years ago at her younger brother’s wedding, my own partner was told by an older family friend that “it didn’t look good” and was “embarrassing” that her brother was now married but she was still unmarried. Clearly her family ‘friend’ is incredibly ignorant but he’s a vessel of society’s judgement that is placed upon us.

I’ve seen peers who have thrown themselves into so-called relationships with the first person that comes along because they’ve hit or are approaching 30 and they feel marriage is the making of a person. Furthermore, they remain in denial of their so-called relationship being contrived and prefiguring failure before it’s even started. Instead, it’s fast tracked to a speedy engagement because it’s what others around them seem to be doing and they feel compelled to follow suit in seeking a hollow notion of cultural achievement. Similarly, women are made to feel that a lack of maternal instinct portrays them as an incomplete woman (although I recently read a selection of brilliant and valid ripostes to that from a number of women in the public eye). It’s a sad and unfair reality that we’re able to be made to feel a failure or incomplete by an objective gauge that’s foisted upon us by society.

The impact of this on mental health is astounding though seemingly ignored. We are effectively determining how we feel about ourselves based on an indicator that isn’t even our own. And the extent to how damaging this is can have reach fatal consequences.

In an age where we are preoccupied with our perception by others, the barometer of success is perpetuated. Social media provides a looking glass through which we are judged not by our own criteria but that of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ who too are subject to the ideals society has foisted upon them. Social media has provided another tool by which we project the aspirations and lives of others as a vehicle for our own alleged success that often isn’t attained. Internally, we may therefore feel empty and despondent at not fulfilling what we have been wired to accept as the standards we are expected to achieve.

South Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. It’s a society where personal and family honour is held high. Many suicides in South Korea are therefore often attributed to the respective individuals perceiving themselves as failures and bringing shame upon themselves or their families in the process. The aforementioned are common themes for suicide anywhere. Though as a society, we’ve become so driven by superficial measures of success that in some instances it can drive people to take their own lives.

To feel a failure according to notions set by others surely isn’t right. Alas, it’s become the status quo that has forced many people to struggle with in validating their own lives to themselves let alone society.

So many of us have become conditioned to compare our achievements and happiness by standards dictated by society rather than ourselves. It’s a culture built upon propagating a message that serves to endorse the choices and lives of others with diminishing regard for ourselves. Cultures and societies are built upon these principles but they are crippling the self-esteem and realisation of self-worth amongst so many. Indeed, it’s a sad truth that in many cases, our respective successes are built upon little more than perpetual and damaging lies to ourselves and those around us.

Happiness and success, and the path to which they are sought, should be subjective. But instead they are determined by the expectations of others that are merely projections of what society has deemed valid. It can take great conviction to pursue a course that goes against the status quo of society. Although as my friend can attest, when it is, it’s the measure of success that we should all aim to pursue.
© iamalaw

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