Success. Are you Interested or Interesting? It boils down to two simple words. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
Most successful people will tell you that money rarely leads to happiness. They will tell you, at best, money provides safety, predictability and access to things or places. They will tell you that money makes life easier to focus on what truly makes us happy…but money itself doesn’t necessarily make us happy. They will tell you all these things; but they don’t believe it themselves.
Warren Susman was a well-known author and history professor at Rutgers University during the 70’s and 80’s. He was most known for his studies in United States culture. One of his most popular publications: Culture as History: the Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century discusses the impact culture has had on society over the last century. It’s quite fascinating. If you haven’t read it, add it to your list.
Susman was said to be “one of the transformative minds of his generation”. During his research he documented 200 years worth of self-help books. He read these books in chronological order, making notes of their key messages.
He noted one very significant change in messaging right around the 20th century. Susman believed this change formed two distinct periods of culture in US history.
During the 19th century, the US was primarily a farming society. People rarely left their home towns. The only people they knew lived within 100 miles of one another. However, these people formed a very important community that everyone relied on to survive.
We think of people during this time as having qualities like being helpful, reliable, and self-less. People greatly valued another person’s “Character” and they would do anything to protect theirs. Is he/she a good person? Is he/she generous? Does he/she provide value to our community? That’s how people wanted to be known.
Susman called this the Culture of Character.
At the turn of the 20th century, the US was undergoing a radical change with the industrial revolution. People evolved from a society of farming, where they never left their homes to one of big cities and booming business.
During this time, we think of people with qualities like knowledge, strong communication skills and wealth. People valued another person’s “personality” more so than ever. Is he/she outgoing? A good public speaker? Liked among his/her peers? These were the qualities that defined another person’s success.
Susman called this the Culture of Personality.
Who defines our success?
The cultures of character and personality can still be seen today juxtaposed between the different cultures of companies, friends and even amongst individuals. More than ever, these cultures drive behaviors aligned with how people value and measure their success.
For companies, it’s simple. It comes down to making money for shareholders. Employees must thrive within this culture or move on. Success is defined and handed to us by way of sales quotas, manufacturing targets, etc.
“Trying your best
is what’s most important”
However, for individuals… it’s a bit more complex (or at least we make it that way). The biggest challenge is who we allow to define our success. We teach our children that material possessions don’t define us and that “trying your best is what’s most important”.
Yet, we go into outrageous amounts of debt to buy bigger homes and cars because we believe these things portray our achievement of success to others. We are pushing our kids earlier and earlier into things like sports or Pre- Pre-School.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t push our kids to reach their potential or spend the money we work hard to earn. I’m more pointing out the obsession our culture has to get some where or some thing sooner because we believe it defines our success.
If you earn all the things in the world, but can’t keep your health,
how successful have you been?
Interested vs. Interesting
I propose that we can replace Susman’s cultures with labels that also describe who we let define our success.
Culture of Character = Interested. People who are interested in improving themselves find the act of reflection and personal accountability rewarding. By focusing more on improving one’s self, these people are rewarded knowing they are doing their best to play a valuable role in society. Their goals are always the same, and it is much easier to find success and happiness within them.
Culture of Personality = Interesting. People who obsess over being seen as interesting are always seeking acceptance from other people. The more achievements and statuses one accumulates, the more success he or she is seen to have. However, the more successful people are, the more people will define new thresholds of success. Generally, these people struggle to find happiness with what they’ve done because it’s never good enough.
Definition of SUCCESS is in our hands
I’m not proposing that we give up all efforts towards anything material or ignore what others think completely. This isn’t an all or nothing topic.
We should spend more time reflecting on how we allow success to be defined…and then, pay attention to who is in control of that definition. If we allow others to drive it, we’ll always be chasing the next big thing.
If we spend time working on the things within our control, our ability to achieve great success and happiness suddenly go through the roof.