The lasting legacy of the twentieth century may be its materialistic definition of success.
Indeed, the “religion” of prosperity has grown to dominate politics, philosophy, religious debate, family and community culture and even education (people sent their children to school with patently career/financial goals).
Even the enemies of prosperity have learned to argue in blatantly materialistic language: Marx believed in a world dominated by conflict between poor and wealthy classes, Hitler argued for economic supremacy of one nation (based on his horrific view of racist supremacy), and Stalin, Mao and a host of dictators amassed power and wealth to themselves and those who served them.
Altruistic movements from various religions and important philosophies (such as feminism, tolerance, environmentalism, etc.) struggled to gain support until they learned to make their case in terms of profitability.
The typical approach to materialism by intellectuals has usually been either to denigrate mankind’s natural materialism and its excesses as “unfettered greed,” or, less frequently, to side with the “virtue of prosperity” perspective.
This debate between the so-called “virtuous poor” and the “virtuous wealthy” made its rounds through politics, academia, media, religion and art.
Science tried to arrive at conclusions based on various studies of socio-economic behavior.
Economists even got into the mix—for example, John Maynard Keynes said that as societies become more and more prosperous, they begin to seek success in things beyond financial increase.
A New Consensus
In the twenty-first century, it appears that a new consensus is emerging—and it’s not what you might think.
In fact, like the earlier materialistic debate (Success 1.0), there are two main perspectives on the new definition of success (Success 2.0).
The first is the “meaning” view, which has become well-known through our modern entertainment.
In this worldview, depression and poverty are bad, financial prosperity is good, and financial prosperity along with a life of real meaning is success.
Steve Jobs popularized this view when he told a graduating class that we should all spend our work lives doing things we really care about and enjoy.
Popular courses at Harvard, Stanford and other prestigious schools on Happiness in Life, or How to Be Happy, have received a great deal of media coverage—and more students than typical science, history or even finance classes.
And why not?
After all, happiness is a concrete feeling that brings its own rewards.
A whole new academic field, Positive Psychology, has risen in just the past two decades with a focus on happiness as the real measure of success.
The findings of Positive Psychology are interesting: people typically have more power over their immediate happiness than their immediate wealth or attractiveness, our thoughts have great impact on our happiness, and focusing effectively on happiness brings instant results that are often more pleasant than the noticeable rewards of food, alcohol, sex or even exercise, for example.
Moreover, the growing Success 2.0 movement has adopted some of the assumptions from both sides of the twentieth century debate on materialism: it argues that some material success is needed to maintain long-term happiness and also that at some point enough is enough and people will find more happiness by enjoying family, fun and giving to those in need than by seeking more money.
This view rejects the extremes of both the “unfettered greed” and “virtuous poor” arguments, while adopting the moderate views of both: meaningful work and a liberal flow of money helps one’s happiness, as does working to live (rather than living to work), spending time with family and friends, and giving needed service and monetary donations to help others.
In short, the new definition of success argues that financial prosperity is good and that those who attain it will find more happiness by seeking lives and work with real meaning including service to others.
As a review of Martin Seligman’s book Flourish put it:
“These days, we are hungry for a new definition of the ‘good life.’ Fractured relationships, crumbling economies, environmental crises, and a continuous state of war all have played their part in chipping away at what was once thought to be the basis for happiness…
“Dr. Seligman introduces the ‘New Prosperity,’ a concept based in optimism, and he shows how it affects everything from the health of a marriage, to recovery from illness, to the fluctuations of the stock market. Rather than focusing on gross domestic product, his new vision of prosperity, combines wealth with well-being…” (Spirituality & Health, July-August 2011).
But not everyone is buying the new definition of success.
For example, while men are three times more likely to find a happy woman more attractive than a proud woman, women are five times more likely to find a proud man more attractive than a happy one (Harper’s, August 2011).
And as the Tiger Mom debate shows, a lot of parents are still convinced that success for their children means prosperity through an Ivy League degree and a highly-compensated profession.
The fact that such a life is likely to be less about leadership or deep meaning than “high class drone work” is usually ignored by proponents of old-style success (Sandra Tsing Loh, “My Chinese American Problem—and Ours,” The Atlantic, April 2011).
Likewise, there is a second, darker, side of the Success 2.0 movement.
The Glory Years
Instead of a moderate combination of the following mantras 1) “work hard to build financial success,” and 2) “don’t lose your life in work, but use work as a support to a great life with family, friends and meaningful service,” some are taking the de-emphasis on career success as permission to avoid work and accomplishment altogether.
“Have fun, hang out with friends, party, live with your parents to avoid expenses, and forget about anything that takes hard work,” is gaining popularity.
This view is not lost on marketers who see college as the “glory years” of partying rather than the hard work of study to obtain an excellent education or prepare for one’s career.
For example, I recently purchased notebooks and pens at Wal-Mart’s “Back to School” sale.
A number of shelves were dedicated to supplies parents, kids and teachers will need for school—calculators, binders, pencils, backpacks, filler paper, markers, and more.
On an adjacent display, several large signs announced: “Back to College Sale!”
Interested, I walked over to see what the college sale had to offer different from the elementary/high school displays.
Imagine my surprise when the entire “Back to Colllege” sale, which took up a lot of floor and shelf space, consisted of toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash and shampoo.
I suppose these are important for college students as much as anyone else, but why was there absolutely nothing related to academics?
I think this is rather poignant.
The tools of college “success,” at least for the Wal-Mart marketers (and I think they have a pretty good sense about the views of their target audience), centered around social acceptability and having fun.
Of course, any university campus probably includes students seeking a fun social life, a quality education, and preparation for a meaningful and rewarding career.
The point is that in the twenty-first century students are more likely to want all three, while last century these three groups were more frequently divided into distinct cliques.
Even where past students combined two of these goals (e.g. a fun social life and career preparation), they tended to clearly prioritize one over the other. Most of today’s students seem to want all three—at the same level of priority.
In short, the old formula of Success = Financial Prosperity is being replaced with a new view that Success = Real Happiness (Financial Prosperity + Meaningful Work + Flourishing Relationships + Significant Service).
With this new math, keeping score may be more complex and more accurate.
Daniel Pink pointed out that the theme of people giving up relationships for their work has been replaced in Hollywood and television productions with people putting relationships above career but finding ways to make them both work.
They want to have their cake and eat it too—or, on the “dark” side, to just enjoy cake.
There is probably little need to worry about those who have decided, for now, to loaf through life.
It almost certainly won’t last.
Success, both the 1.0 and 2.0 varieties, is a kind of widespread de-facto American religion.
As one author wrote of Americans:
“What a curious people. Their mania for self-improvement encompassed everything that touched them, and they resented the cost of every change. They were proudly self-reliant and quick to assign blame to others for their disappointments.
“They were certain theirs was the most enlightened and envied society on earth, that human history was mostly a chronicle of their achievements, and were convinced, too, that their country was constantly in need of repair. Everything they had was better than what any other people had, including their form of government, and nothing was good enough. They believed in themselves…
“For all its power and influence, its abundance and enterprise, [America] was still an immature society: impatient, demanding, not comfortable with introspection, frivolous and audacious” (O, anonymous).
But when it comes time to do the big things, America has repeatedly risen to the occasion.
It has sometimes taken crisis to bring Americans to the table, but once they come they sway everything in their path.
I am convinced that the current generation will do the same.
Churchill quipped that Americans can be counted on to do the right thing after they have exhausted the other possibilities.
Seligman suggests that there are ways to do important things that are not rooted in crisis.
For example, he “presents a rather startling idea, given the current state of affairs: that if history were to repeat itself, such a focus might result in a new Renaissance, appropriate for the twenty-first century but similar to the one that occurred when mid-fifteenth century Florence—rich, well-fed, and at peace—decided to invest its wealth in beauty rather than in conquest” (Spirituality & Health, July/August 2011).
We need to overcome a few challenges before we fully engage the idealism we are capable of.
An estimated 85% of 2011 college graduates are moving back home after graduation (Harper’s, August 2011), an alarming reality for their Boomer generation (born 1946-64) parents.
Likewise, the X generation (born 1965-1985) has reluctantly avoided taking on the responsibilities of past generations.
Up and At It
But when the times require, these generations will grow up and lead out.
Like Shakespeare’s Henry V, generations X and Y (born 1985-2005) grew up being told that world crisis was ahead and that they would have to sacrifice and lead to improve the world.
They subsequently attempted to prolong and enjoy their youth as long as they could.
But like young Henry, when they are called upon by world events, they will be up to the task.
Many members of Gen X and Gen Y worried that 9/11 was such a call, then relaxed as things seemed to normalize.
They worried that the Great Recession was their call, and they are still keeping one eye on this possibility, even while they cling to disappearing hopes for lives of perpetual youth.
Despite their fears, history makes it clear that their time will come, and current trends indicate that they will approach it with a new view of what success means.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of people wanted to “get rich and get out.”
Today, many Americans are restructuring their careers or engaging entrepreneurial and other non-traditional enterprises specifically to combine their hard work with more money, more time with family and hobbies, and more service and charitable contributions.
Success 2.0 is a good change for America, and it broadens the opportunity for everyone in a free society to truly succeed.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.