I sometimes sit on panels or committees with very aspriational and ambitious intentions to help make some aspect of the world a better place. In spaces like that there can be a culture of success worship. We have all usually been chosen because of our perceived capacity to bring something of value to the table. People often showcase their ‘shiniest’ selves and hide mistakes, failures, struggles, and losses. This can have a number of difficult outcomes.
Firstly it often makes those in that space feel slightly disconnected and lonely. Aware of our own struggles and imperfections, or wrestling with the costs we are paying (however willingly) to engage, it is easy to be taken in by the masks of success, sanity, competence, and imperviousness around us.
Non-violent psychopaths – people who are often charming, glib, manipulative, and very harmful to anyone they have power over, thrive in environments such as these. They excel at looking amazing often because they are unrestrained by anxiety, morality, concern for others. There is no inner conflict, so like apex predators they are eminently comfortable and able to tailor the environment to suit their appetites at whatever cost to others. Stealing credit, undermining others, and presenting a brilliant facade to those in power over them are all skills well suited to success cultures.
Another challenge is that when we seek to improve circumstances for other people in some way, there’s a disconnect between the kinds of people chosen for the group who will come up with the solutions, and the kinds of people stuck in the problem. They are rarely the same people, even if they share some similar characteristics.
For example, I was at a conference a little while ago discussing disability. A couple of speakers with lived experience were sharing their stories and they were amazing experiences, heart felt, exceptional, incredible. Intended to eradicate the brutal impact of low expectations for people with disability, and I think they did an amazing job of this. In their company I was not even slightly ‘shiny’. My goals were smaller, my gaps wider, my struggles longer and more humiliating and complex.
I felt both uncomfortably raw and fiercely glad to be there, because these amazing success stories are so far from what many people live with. I held a space for failure, for struggle and loss. That is by no means my whole story! But it was an important one to share in that space. This is part of the reality we need to face and explore and understand. Success cultures make us afraid to invite it in or acknowledge it, when the truth is there are many failures on the path to wisdom. The capacity to struggle is directly linked to the capacity to learn.
Not all cultures admire success, some are quite the reverse. Any blogger can tell you that in some spaces agony and exposure gathers the adoring crowd, who drift once the blood clots and the wounds heal. In these spaces, sharing success is a stressful declaration of courage. Earning money from our skills risks censor and shaming, moving from the gift economy to a market economy may cost friendships and reputations. Our own frustration, ambivalence, and inexperience can mean we navigate such transitions with bitter fury rather than grace.
There’s nothing wrong with success, nor with the recognition of skill, experience, and capacity on which we base our understandings of rank. When I want to learn something I seek out those who are skilled. I look for and deeply value quality in every area of my life. When I am fortunate to have a skilled and passionate dentist I know I am so lucky. I put up with a level of unpleasant disdain to learn excellence in the preservation of oil paintings.
But expertise is always build upon learning, and learning means mistakes and reflection. My favourite quote about it is
An expert is (someone) who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field. -Niels Bohr