How to Succeed in Life...Ideally, on Your Own Terms

You owe it to yourself to define how you will fulfull your roles in life.

Posted Jun 23, 2017

Breakingpic/Pexels, CC0
Source: Breakingpic/Pexels, CC0

In my last two posts, I discussed the importance of defining your own idea of success, based on the advice of two writer-bloggers, Joanna Penn and Jessica Abel, whose ideas apply to any kind of work, whether creative or not. In this post, I turn to success in one particular field, academia, although I hope some aspects of the post will apply to your own life, whatever field you’re in (or want to be in).

On this topic, I agree with much of what psychology professor Steven Shaw writes in his blog post, “What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It.” Shaw rejects the standards for success implicit in his field (which, as he acknowledges, are different in every field in academia) and the petty competitiveness and jockeying for position that they generate (which are pretty much the same in every field in academia). Instead, he chose for himself what success means to him: “I want my students to meet their professional goals and for everyone else to leave me alone.”

The first part is fairly clear (even if it is too often taken for granted in academia), but the second is much more interesting. Shaw explains:

I want to publish enough papers that make contributions to my field, have enough grant money, and have enough academic accomplishments so that I do not become an embarrassment to the department and require the attention of the department chair.

What stands out to me the most in this statement—other than his pathological aversion to speaking to his department chair—is Shaw’s emphasis on “enough.” His personal definition of success does not hinge on achieving the most or the best, but enough to please those he is responsible to, while leaving him free to pursue what he wants to do, which is “to study what I want and with whom I want,” as well as have a satisfying and happy personal life. As he concludes, “I believe that I am successful and the work is worth it to me; but only for my context, specific definition of success, and desired quality of life" (emphasis mine).

I’ve had Shaw’s post on my cellphone for months, reading it every week or two and thinking about how it relates to my own questions about how I define my role as an academic and what success as an academic means to me. Like Shaw, I take teaching very seriously, as I do my role as chair of my department, in which I help my students and faculty achieve their own goals. (My faculty appreciate my attention and never ever slam their doors when they hear me walking down the hall.)

Unfortunately, however, success as an academic is normally taken to mean publications, grants, and awards—the “coin of the realm,” as it were. I don’t aim solely for the best journals or presses, trying instead to publish as much as I can in reputable venues so they will be read and possibly have an impact on the world. And lately, my focus has been mostly on writing for non-academic audiences, which will likely increase that impact but won’t do much for my “reputation” as an academic. (Ironically, however, a reputation as an academic can be valuable in lending credibility to popular writing.)

The question remains, however, how valid it is to call myself an academic if, as I’ve been told, I don’t “play the game.” Shaw doesn’t get into this in his post, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot as I play the game less and less. It’s one thing to say that I will define how I’m going to be an academic, but there are limits to how far I stretch the term; after all, I can’t call myself a musician if I never pick up an instrument! Being an academic has some essential meaning beyond how I choose to interpret it, and I can deviate from that meaning only so far before it becomes inappropriate to use that term to describe myself anymore. (I don't think I'm there yet, but I may be getting close.)

-- -- -- -- --

Regardless of the context of your idea of success, whether it’s related to your career, hobby, or personal life, the main point of these three posts is the importance of defining what success means for you rather than blindly accepting someone else’s idea of it. This is an integral part of being an autonomous and authentic individual, and ensures that the standards of success you try to live to are ones you’re chosen for yourself and that reflect your own interests and values. (This is one of the themes I explore in my book The Decline of the Individual, coming out later this year.)

This doesn’t mean that your idea of success can’t be outwardly focused, such as Shaw’s personal goal of helping his students learn. You can chose to measure success by helping others—and a ton of research suggests that such a goal will lead to deeper happiness or fulfillment as well—but the important thing is that you choose that measure of success yourself. As Penn and Abel emphasized, only then will success be personally meaningful along with the other worldly benefits.