A drop in the ocean

Success begets success. We share an illusion that successful people know what they are doing with their lives. Which explains their I-know-what-I-am-talking-about confidence. And our incredulity. It’s why we ask the successful what we should be doing with our lives. When we have all the wrong questions, they seem to have all the right answers. The successful are an anodyne to our existential crises. It’s how they overcome their own.

In prevalent usage of the idea, success is a function of wealth. In its philosophical spirit, you should’ve given up the wealth and reek of leaf to proclaim success. But we like success the most in its stretch pants all-inclusive form: everybody is successful in their own way, so lunch is on you today.

Which is why I am surprised by how much we love the recurring theme of the successful person hating his life. Didn’t we just decide everyone’s sexy and they know it?

It is going to take us a while to accept the idea that money is not a necessary condition for success, but we can all agree misery is a sufficient condition. The correlation between success and happiness has the same statistical significance as the correlation between running out of calendars and the end of the world. We have become caught up in success and its various undertones, we have failed to see what it has eventually morphed into.

Success has become a symbol of how well (or not) we’ve lived our lives. It’s the 21st-century version of life after death. And like most things 21st century, it makes no sense.

So it’s become different now — success motivation. It’s generic: dream big, work hard, make sure your co-founder is the uglier one. It works across definitions. I am not successful in any sense I described above – I have a blog if you haven’t noticed – but when I see someone who is, I have this instinctual urge to ask them how they did it.

It’s this hope that keeps us going. It’s what makes sure we never find out anything for ourselves.

Success and failure make life look like an even split between joy and sadness, pain, and pleasure. But life is a chaotic mix of meaning, emotions, mistakes, and acceptance. You can’t succeed in one without failing in the other. You’ve got to make mistakes so you learn to accept. You’ve got to find meaning in order to acknowledge the meaningless. You’ve got to fail in love to understand you never loved. Instead, we look forward to the celebratory afterlife that follows success.

But do you celebrate this success because you now have something you didn’t have before? Were you a failure all along then? Shouldn’t the more appropriate feeling then be you feeling like a sack of shit? But you know why you are celebrating. Your celebration is an attempt to create a happiness success did not bring. You didn’t just construct the mirage, you constructed the entire desert. If you need a reason to celebrate, that in itself is a failure.

Success and failure are constructions that prevent you from seeing one fundamental truth: that you are still the same person. But you have no idea who that person is. Because you’ve been so caught up in becoming someone else. In the voyage of discovery, success and failure crash into each other like waves in the ocean. Your life may be but a drop in the ocean, but your discovery of life, to borrow from the poet Rumi, is an entire ocean in a drop.

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