What does it mean to be successful? What does success mean to you? So often in our materially-oriented society, success is marked tangibly, by a fancy car, a mansion or even by that next promotion. For others, success can be winning a 10K or simply running one, or being a mother and raising healthy children with healthier values.
The bottom line? Success can have many definitions. And here’s a good one, in particular. Fortytude exemplar, former professor and book author Sue Smalley, Ph.D. examines Aristotle’s take on idleness, and how perhaps consciously remaining idle could mark the true meaning of success.
A friend and I were discussing what it means to have success the other day and she was telling me how difficult it is to demonstrate success in her profession: clinical psychology. I had thought about that myself a while back when I realized that success to a mental health professional means a patient no longer needs their services. It is a quiet affair to end one’s therapy; it is something private between clinician and patient. There are no awards, promotions, publications, or other signs of success that might accompany positions in business or academia.
It got me thinking about ‘what is success’ anyway, particularly as it applies to work or career? Then I came across “The Language of Work,” an article in the June issue of Harper’s magazine by Mark Kingwell. Kingwell makes the case that ‘work’, the fundamental idea of capitalism, is the “dominant value in far too much of life.” He argues persuasively that the language of the value of work “naturalizes and so makes invisible some of the very dubious, if not evil, assumptions of the work idea.”
He continues by highlighting that the word ‘idle,’ a word we might associate with laziness or a negative state, was originally used by Aristotle to mean “the cultivation of the most divine element in us through the exercise of leisure: spirited but serious reflection on who we are and what we are up to, free from the base demands of mere usefulness.”
To Aristotle, being ‘idle’ would be a sure sign of success.
My psychologist friend’s work helps people remove barriers that might block them from addressing the questions of ‘who am I’ and ‘what am I up to.’ Psychotherapy and contemplation (or meditation) are methods for facilitating that sort of personal inquiry; these activities may increase during times of leisure, but they are not effortless nor synonymous with leisure pursuits. Personal inquiry is an active process requiring effort that may or may not be practiced in times of leisure. As work has become dominant in our culture, leisure time has lessened. And when we aren’t working we are often too tired to practice anything requiring effort or we are determined to do more things—vacation, sports, cinema, etc.—so there isn’t time for active personal reflection to take place.
When the idea of work consumes us as, Kingwell’s article suggests, it contributes to a sort of thinking that the measure of success is the collection of more things—money, awards, property, fame—way beyond the necessity of work for the sake of usefulness.
A recent Pew poll of high school graduates noted that their top two goals in life were to be rich and famous, while goals of spiritual growth and community involvement shrank in collective compared to previous generations. In light of these changing interests, we must ask ourselves, what is it to be successful?
Perhaps the true sign of success is the ability to free oneself from work to engage in the active process of what Aristotle called idleness, the effortful investigation of life to ‘know oneself.’ What if we were to cease ‘work’ when it no longer was for necessity? Perhaps it would increase the ability for others to secure work in a similar vein, and allow for an increasing collective to investigate those age-old questions of ‘who am I’ and ‘what is the meaning of life.’
Perhaps a sign of true success is living the Idle Life.
A version of this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Dr. Smalley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA, conducted seminal studies on the genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders and autism during her 20+ years as a behavior geneticist. In 2004, she founded the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA (www.MARC.ucla.edu) to bring mindfulness practices to the general public through research and education. She continues to advise and teach at MARC while devoting time to writing and working to promote a kinder more equitable world through philanthropic efforts. She blogs regularly for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post and her first book (Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, with coauthor Diana Winston) is widely praised for its elegant yet easy to read integration of scientific knowledge and first person experiences of mindfulness (Da Capo publishing, 2009). Dr. Smalley serves on the Board of Equality Now and founded CellEd with her husband to spread adult literacy through mobile phones.
Dr. Smalley is married to Kevin Wall, and they have three grown children.