Success

Joshua Wolf Shenk has an article in the June issue of The Atlantic (available online now) that provides an overview of the Grant Study, a project to determine success factors by following a group of the most promising young men researchers could find as they made their way through life.  The young men in question were Harvard students whom researchers identified as being the most likely to succeed in life based on conventional standards at the time.  The study has been proceeding for over 70 years.

David Brooks writes about it in today’s column:

In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted.”

And later in the column:

Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success.”

The ongoing project is a longitudinal study, and Shenk discusses the challenges in funding and running such studies.  The most interesting result of the study is the inability of researchers to predict success, even of the most conventional kind.

For the Cowboy, success is a term fraught with complications.  It is a term that must be defined by the individual, but it is all too easy to be trapped by societal norms.  Either you conform, and thoughtlessly accede to those societal definitions – wealth, power, belongings, family, and dare I say, happiness – or you succumb to the siren on the opposite shore, rebelling against those same concepts to the extent that you are defined by their opposites.

The process of defining success is important.  Path as goal, to use the Buddhist expression.  But the goal is important too.  So the Cowboy’s version is: path AND goal.  Without a personal definition of success, one can easily become rudderless, allowing chance to take over rather than having it be one component of life’s journey.  Chance keeps it interesting, giving us unexpected opportunities and trying challenges.  But we cannot abdicate responsibility to the gods of fate.  The human experience is about guiding the ship to its destination while understanding that the destination may change.  We are adventurers on the high seas; we are not castaways.

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Published in: on May 12, 2009 at 22:37  Comments Off on Success  
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