“Would anyone consider Einstein merely a ‘successful scientist’?” I don’t remember who said or wrote words to that effect, but that question has stuck with me for years. And it’s even more relevant today, I believe, than ever. Just what is success?
The first two dictionary definitions I came across were: “a favorable or desired outcome from something attempted” and “attainment of wealth and fame.”
A favorable or desired outcome. That sounds so milquetoastish…almost pedestrian. It’s not exactly soul-inspiring, and what does being rich and famous have to do with real accomplishment? Is “success” just settling for comfort, as opposed to striving for something more?
Is the United States too focused on success, especially as opposed to greatness? When I was young, people had dreams of great achievements, of being President, or a doctor or astronaut, of writing the great American novel, or coming up with a cure for a horrendous disease. I can’t recall anyone who just wanted to be rich or famous. Or of being merely a successful doctor or dentist or teacher or whatever.
Then again, world-class achievement is getting a bit harder to accomplish. Everest has been conquered, and now it’s just another mountain that hundreds if not thousands have climbed. Astronauts have walked on the moon, but not for more than thirty years, and exceeding the speed of sound in an aircraft is so passe that we’ve abandoned the only supersonic passenger jet because it was too expensive, just as manned space exploration has been put on the far back burner for the same reason – despite all the hoopla about The Martian and the record-breaking opening weekend gross of the latest Star Wars movie. Even the New Horizons mission that recently reached Pluto and sent back breath-taking images was launched over nine years ago, and I’m not aware of anything that ambitious in the works in even the unmanned exploration programs. And given that the comparatively low-budget New Horizons mission was begun roughly fifteen years ago, that suggests no “great” achievements in space exploration are likely or even possible for 20-30 years, despite a series of “successful” smaller missions.
Once upon a time, composers were truly celebrated for their works, but today in the music world great success doesn’t mean great musical work; it means great financial returns, and works that show musical excellence seldom are those that generate enormous financial returns. In pharmaceuticals, success isn’t measured so much by discovering drugs that “cure diseases,” but in finding blockbuster drugs that yield billion-dollar returns. In business, success isn’t building an outstanding product, but building one that makes billions, and whether it’s outstanding is very much secondary. In politics, success is getting and holding office, not what one accomplishes through that office.
In short, today’s “success” seldom, if ever, reflects great or lasting achievements, and I find that sad and worrisome.