“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.

6 thoughts on “Success”

  1. Joe says:

    I cannot agree more.

    I blame the financialization of our economy. The UK, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the inventor of the (first useful) steam engine, and then the steam locomotive no longer produces its own trains, despite having had the most innovative designs in the 1980s on which the french TGV was based. Instead it buys them from Hitachi.

    You can either have banks, or you can have technical innovation. Today people might argue that “venture capitalists” and “angel funding” enable innovation. But Silicon Valley has produced very little truly innovative in the last 15 years. Twitter? Airbnb? Netflix? Even Google existed in 1998, and before that we had Altavista and Webcrawler. Despite the hype, deep learning is just the neural nets of my youth backed up by more data and more computational power.

    It was still different in the late 1990s, but you could already sense Wall Street’s growing influence, requiring quarterly earnings for devices that had multiyear cycles (computer chips). Now, that whole industry is stagnating, supposedly “commoditized”, with no projected growth of electrical engineers. It is notable that Elon Musk is keeping SpaceX out of the financial markets because their profit time frames are too short for rocket designs.

    The fact we no longer aspire to greatness spills over to the political scene. It is why so many intellectual pigmies, and fake “successes”, are standing for president this year.

  2. Tom says:

    So; here I am wanting ‘greatness’ instead of just ‘success’. Financial and adulation success is not greatness so what does one need to demonstrate ‘greatness’? Imagination, innovation, originality, or just simply ‘being first’? But can one be great without being a success (or having a patron)?

    My parents thought they were successful if they helped their children up the educational/social ladder; they never mentioned ‘greatness’ because they thought that was up to the gods. Perhaps 21st century ‘greatness’ is just lifetime (momentary) financial and social success. If one considers how our children, and more so our grandchildren, will have to live then perhaps being great is indeed financial and social success. Are the new generations likely to turn the wheel of ‘values’ back to meritocracy at the top? At what cost are they willing to do this?

    In the words of one great author – one has to have a political and social wish of the citizens for a nation to show greatness. The goal is limited by the need to demonstrate financial/social success within a short political time-span.

    An education system that produces individuals who realize that greatness requires constant attention to the details of life may produce great individuals who are willing to do just that.

    1. Joe says:

      It seems pretty simple: are you doing something for its intrinsic worth, or are you doing something for its extrinsic benefits?

      In one case it’s about the thing itself, in the other case it’s about you and what you get for it. The decisions you make will be quite different, and thus so will the outcomes.

  3. Tom says:

    Excuse the forgoing: Please.

    Einstein has been and is still considered a great person; over the last 100 years.

    Einstein’s greatness is in part because he was a successful scientist.

    Great people are said to products of their society.

    Successful people are products of their industry.

    Greatness and Success are not the same thing. Greatness is usually an adjective and success is usually a noun. There are many successful people who are unlikely to be considered great.

    Thus there is still hope for society.

  4. John Prigent says:

    I believe that, as individuals, ‘success’ is being able to do whatever it might be that one enjoys doing. NB- this is not necessarily something one is paid to do. Even if there is no enjoyment in the paid job, that can come from what one does outside it. And, of course, for the truly lucky the paid job _is_ something that is enjoyed.

  5. Joe says:

    Off topic: Solar Express was fun, but given the size of astronomical observations (terabytes) the notion that one would save on pictures (megabytes) seems improbable…

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