Measuring Success

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of Solon of Athens visiting Croesus of Sardis, reportedly the most powerful and wealthiest man of his time. Croesus gave Solon “a thorough tour of his treasuries to show him how magnificent and valuable everything was.” After the tour Croesus asked Solon who he thought was the happiest man he knew — expecting him to name Croesus himself. Instead, Solon named “Tellus of Athens.” His choice was based not on Tellus’s wealth, which was not exceptional, but on the fact that he lived a long and good life and had “sons who were fine, upstanding men”  and died “a glorious death.”

The story is interesting because it makes us think about what it is that makes us happy — or successful, which in our culture has come to mean the same thing. We tend to measure success by the amount of wealth we have amassed in our lifetime (like Croesus) and/or the position of power we might hope for in a society focused on free-enterprise capitalism. In a word, our notion of success is a measured one, measured by the quantity of stuff we can claim as our own.

Solon’s response to Croesus suggests another standard, one that takes into account the quality of life a person lives. We hesitate to talk about quality, though, because we cannot measure it, and in our culture today that means it doesn’t count.

This, of course, is nonsense, since it ignores the possibility that there is another perfectly sensible (more sensible?) way to measure success, and it focuses squarely on the quality of life a person lives and has nothing whatever to do with quantity. Think of Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer who devoted their lives to others and turned their backs on a life of luxury and “success” measured in graduated cylinders. Or think of the local school teacher who is about to retire after 40 years of affecting the lives of countless youngsters while barely making enough to pay the bills; or the nurse at the local hospital who works an impossible schedule helping to ease the pain of others; or think of the man who has devoted his life to the preservation of the earth. Indeed, think of those who devote their lives to something or someone other than themselves. Those are the truly successful people. And here I disagree somewhat with Solon. It is a matter of the quality of one’s life, but It’s not the one who lives a long life and dies a glorious death. It is the man or woman who finds happiness and joy in the delight of others or making the earth a better place than they found it when they arrived here.

A man by the name of David Orr has written an interesting book entitled Earth In Mind in which he pilloried the perverted sense of success built around what I have characterized as the quantitative model. He is convinced that this model of success is spawned by capitalism in the interest of perpetuating a system that requires a work force preoccupied with their own financial well-being. Capitalism in Orr’s view has “destroyed morality altogether.” This is so because the current model of success is ego-centric and built around notions of competition, where some win and many lose. And, he insists, our colleges and universities are responsible in large part for perpetuating this narrow view of success as they concentrate their efforts on turning out future managers and entrepreneurs who care little about the world they are exploiting. Students today are concerned almost exclusively with careerism and upward mobility, with their future “life-style,” rather than with the quality of their lives. As Orr would have it, “The decimation of morality and nature has been carried out in large measure by people who, within the paradigm of techno-industrialism, are generally deemed ‘successful,’ and most of whom have had considerable intellectual preparation at our schools and universities.”

Whether or not we agree with Orr, it is certainly the case that our culture is committed to an extremely narrow view of human success and perhaps it would be wise for us to widen our perspective and consider alternative views — such as I have suggested above.