February 20, 2014

Success Is Relative

It seems that many people view success as some sort of absolute value, usually inextricably tied to how much money you make. Ignoring the fact that we should not be tying success to monetary value, we should also not be treating success as some sort of absolute value based on where you end up. What really matters is where you started from.

Climbing a mountain is not that impressive when you start half a mile from the peak. On the other hand, if you start all the way at the bottom, climbing the whole thing is very impressive, indeed. A blogger once said that being born as a middle-class straight white male is like playing life on easy mode. Minorities have many cultural barriers they must break down to reach the same level as a white male, often because they are born poor.

Poor people have a huge range of difficulties that are hard to appreciate unless one experiences them first-hand. To the middle-class, overdraft fees, parking tickets and unexpected taxes are nothing more than an annoyance. To the poor, they are the stuff of nightmares. A single slipup, a single misstep, and they will lose all the spending money they had for the next 3 months, and possibly not be able to buy dinner. They must work demanding, low-paying jobs that leave them physically and mentally exhausted, which itself makes it even harder for them to land a promotion or pursue their hobbies.

Robbed of the mental energy to work on things they find interesting and fun, poor people often slip into depression, or self-destructive lifestyles, because there literally is no way out. The only way out is for them to somehow be less stressed, which requires a better job, which requires them to have more time to spend bettering themselves, which requires them to be less stressed, which requires a better job...

It's the worst kind of catch-22, and it's one whose existence is repeatedly and blatantly denied by a middle-class oblivious to the struggles of the poor. They do not understand the herculean efforts it takes to do things that seem simple and routine for themselves. They do not appreciate how impressive it is when a poor person elevates themselves to a position that they might consider demeaning.

What's worse is that they over-inflate their own progress, and then act as though a poor person could have done the same thing. "Just teach yourself how to do it," they say. "Use the internet," they say. They don't understand that without a decent education, poor people either do not understand the importance of these things and shouldn't be expected to, or they have so much to learn they can't possibly find the time to do so in conjunction with the soul-sucking job that occupies most of their time. Being poor is not a slight disadvantage, it's like starting a race half a mile behind your opponent with a lead weight attached to your ankle, and your opponent has a motorcycle.

Many of my acquaintances, when they hear of my 6-figure salary, automatically assume that I am successful. That I have somehow beaten the odds through concentrated effort and landed an amazing job they can only dream of. The truth is that what I have accomplished is hardly anything special. I won the genetic and environmental lottery. I was gifted with talents that gave me a jump start on skills that happened to be wildly in-demand in today's economy. I went to excellent schools, and had attentive parents that never shielded me from my own failures, but encouraged me to learn from them. I worked just as hard as everyone else, but I didn't even need to. My efforts in making music and building games never accomplished anything. All I had to do was dutifully finish my schoolwork until I graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, and poof, I had a fantastic, cushy job many people would kill for.

This is hardly impressive. I have simply traveled the path that was set up for me, and every attempt I made to excel, to do more than simply walk down the road in front of me me has been met with abject failure. I was given a gift, a free ride halfway up the mountain, and I haven't made it very far at all. The people at the bottom look up to me and see success, without realizing that I have climbed the same distance they have.

They are just as successful as I am - they just started farther down.

When I see an artist just barely managing to make ends meet, I see success. When I see a musician living in a run-down apartment and paying rent, I see accomplishment. When I see a writer making ends meet with a few odd commissions, I see tenacity. Our culture heaps scorn on those who do what they love and barely manage to make a living out of it without realizing how brutally difficult this is to do. Simply managing to feed yourself by following your dream is an accomplishment on par with finishing a master's degree.

I am not writing this to belittle myself, or others, but to elevate those who have accomplished a great deal, and get comparatively little recognition for it. I write this because too often artists set absurd goals for themselves without knowing that the ones they idolize didn't climb nearly as many steps as themselves. Artists look around and see themselves barely surviving off of their art, and wonder if they are a failure, when in fact simply being able to sustain oneself like that is a great accomplishment. Sadly, it seems that it is an accomplishment that does not come with a diploma, or a trophy, or even respect.

I hope that artists, and poor people in general, will eventually realize that they are just as successful as everyone else - they just have more steps to climb.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this reminder and eye opener, reading this has changed how i view certain things. Your post is too good not be shared, i have shared the link with my friends and i hope it helps us learn to appreciate people more