Success is a tricky business. You can limit your world view narrowly enough and succinctly define your terms so a particular outcome may be measured either success or failure. Play a game of checkers to a non-drawn conclusion and you have a winner. But in all situations is the apparent loser not successful? Consider a parent teaching a child. If after much coaching and guiding the student finally beats the teacher, isn’t this a success for the teacher? I might even argue it’s a greater success in the larger picture. So success by another name – could it be happiness? Let us still be cautious though, for the inverse would be that happiness by any other name… would be success. Is this always true? Should it be?
Juxtaposition of various elements in life has long fascinated me. Sometimes we deliberately set things up in certain ways so their juxtaposition gives added meaning. And often in the rest of nature – outside the deliberate hand of man – one can find elements juxtaposed such that if properly read impart extra meaning. Notice how various plants and animals on a landscape interact to create a system, a system greater in its entirety than the sum of its parts.
I’ve lead with those two thoughts because several discussions of success have recently drawn my attention. These discussions include a book, a movie, a letter, a journal article, and a couple recent blog posts. Respectively, these include: Triple Package; Noah; Pope Francis’ latest encyclical ‘Laudato Si’; a piece by Chris Smaje on Genesis and environmentalism; another piece by veteran Tennessee Agrarian Brian Miller; and a small element from a post previously left here.
Success as defined in Triple Package [full disclosure – I’ve not read the book… comments here represent ideas gleaned from author’s comments in an interview and a handful of reviews; see here, here, and here] – where success is a metric measured by demographic statistics showing a group’s overrepresentation in posts such as college admissions or corporate boardrooms. The point I want to draw out is their third piece of the triple package – impulse control. It appears to me they’ve conflated impulse control with delayed gratification, and I would prefer to draw some distinction between the two*. If we allow here that delayed gratification is more significant to their thesis then I can shortcut to highlight where I agree with their conclusion: having faith a future exists where one can gain a reward for a current sacrifice is an important ingredient in the pursuit of success. I could as easily have substituted ‘believing’ for ‘having faith’ in the previous sentence, but I’m aware of some who would draw a distinction between these and I want to be clear where my preference lies. More on delayed gratification toward the end of this post.
Noah – the movie – caught me off guard. The Biblical story is concise and fantastical… perhaps even unbelievable. But whether one wants to believe the Genesis episode as historic fact or moral story it does make for a wonderful narrative. The piece of the movie catching me off (spoiler alert?!): Moses’ conclusion that the Creator intends all humans should be removed from Creation… a thought he later reconsiders. But at the point in the film where Moses’ plan is laid out he justifies it because humanity has so egregiously gone against the will of the Creator that we no longer deserve to be members of the elegant and wonderful world originally made at the hands of the Creator. Where I see the juxtaposition of this particular story of Noah to the present discussion of success is in the malleable nature of Noah’s vision of his mission and how he comes to change his terms for success of the mission. His view of success takes a full 180, he spares his twin Granddaughters, and I suspect his happiness increased in like measure.
Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical letter is pretty cool. One of my brothers thought of me when he saw the final draft, downloaded a .pdf, and printed a copy for me (which I did not take as the poke it might have been… that I couldn’t do the same for myself… brothers and particularly the set I belong to – can be that way… oh, and BTW Thanks, Kris). Anyway, unlike Triple Package, I am reading this one. Thus far I’ve found very little to quibble about. I’d have preferred a more nuanced handling of point 32 on loss of biodiversity (pg 9 my copy)… but my personal views on the dangers inherent in biodiversity loss are not so mainstream as most ecologists might like either. I agree there are hazards from wanton habitat destruction. But where tradeoffs must be made, and due diligence has been carried out, I will side with humans. If species X can’t handle that, it will eventually be replaced. Cold? I suppose, but warm and fuzzy didn’t used to put points on the evolutionary tote board (thouhg now witness the panda and koala bears… intergeneric altruism??). Point 34 is beautiful – and yet I still want to offer some minor edits. Quibbler’s disease I suppose. My gripe about point 34 is the tone suggesting a technological treadmill can’t (or won’t) be disembarked. Maybe I’m too critical of the language used – but I feel more optimistic than what my reading of it suggests His Holiness is. Regardless of where I might want to draw a slightly different line, I do imagine this letter will have far greater positive impact on our condition than any musings I might offer. It will be more successful and I couldn’t be happier.
Chris Smaje’s piece on Genesis and the Land Ethic1 fascinated me when I first saw it. While Chris spends his time with the Garden of Eden narrative and moves on before coming to Noah, I suspect his ability to peruse a large subject matter and incorporate several disparate angles into a cogent whole would make him one to follow if he ever does take on the Ark builder. The thing about Chris’ scholarship in this particular piece was it brought out for me some of the nuance among various Genesis scholars. Quibbling has been around a very long time, quibbling even over the correct interpretation of a creation story older than the languages we use today to quibble about it. This gives me cause to suspect various understandings of success (and happiness) may be quibbled over. It also leads me to think projecting our own particular understanding of happiness onto others seldom leads to success.
Brian lives upon a pretty interesting patch of ground. In a part of the ‘Old South’ in East Tennessee he lives among predominantly white, and very rural folk. He and Cindy have a respectably sized little farm and they are by all appearances most excellent stewards of this piece of earth. This region was settled by black and white men and women long before the onset of the Civil War. John Muir once walked through East Tennessee and wrote of his experience there. Copious written records exist of the history of this region following European and African settlement. But records of pre-white/black human life in the region are fewer in number and more speculative in detail. Still the ecology of the Tennessee Valley was full of indigenous peoples, and for a very long span. That the region was gorgeous when first visited by European settlers testifies to the ecological prowess of the former inhabitants. That the region is any less beautiful today might be laid at the feet of a less caring society and the disregard of older human values, even values a mere generation in the past. But even in the face of change in the natural habitat – is all the difference the result of some insidious failure? How much happiness does the present condition of the environment still provide? How far must happiness diminish before we consider our treatment of this ecosystem a failure?
I recently offered a small thought about delayed gratification and a speculation about whether such a behavior might give rise to altruism. Having no data to make a case I let it go with a speculation. As noted above the authors of Triple Package make delayed gratification (in the name of impulse control) one of their three important predictors for successful groups. They have some data. If allowed I’d make a jump here from success in terms of financial gain to success in an evolutionary sense. In evolutionary terms the success of an individual or group of individuals is called fitness. The more live and reproductively capable offspring left to the next generation the greater the fitness. If success in natural populations (fitness) can be influenced by a behavior such as delayed gratification – acting now, sacrificing for a future reward – then Chua and Rubenfeld may have some evolutionary cards to play. Certainly their analysis, however one wants to consider it, doesn’t hurt the case for delayed gratification as a positive behavioral strategy. Looking out for another’s happiness is an altruistic behavior. Success may be measured by different metrics, but when happiness is the coin of realm, we all win.
*A Tourette’s patient may respond to medication allowing some regulation of the impulsive outbursts symptomatic of their condition. This can be considered impulse control and is quite outside the common notion of delayed gratification.
1 Smaje, C. (2008) ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2,2: 183-198. [ed note, behind a paywall. Copies available from author on request]