Life & Love


Let us admit it: Success is a loaded word. In America, we celebrate it; our meritocratic, sometimes brazen embrace of it has made us different—more successful, arguably—than much of the rest of the world. And given our belief that any of us could become a wild success at any moment, we have a long tradition of self-help literature on the subject, starting with a book that doesn’t even have the S-word in the title: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, originally published in 1936 and still the thirteenth-most-sold nonfiction book on Amazon.

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I’d never read the book, which I assumed to be a Machiavellian road map for gaming people into liking you, softening them up for the kill. So I was surprised to learn that Carnegie, a former pork salesman turned public-speaking guru, believed that it was collegiality—fostering bonds of trust and decency at work—that paved the way to success.

In the 80 years since How to Win Friends first appeared, we’ve meandered successwise. We’ve lionized upstart innovators—from Estée Lauder to Steve Jobs to Jay Z—who struck it rich revolutionizing various industries. And pop culture encourages us to swoon over signifiers of wealth. Who can forget MTV Cribs—a millennial update on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous—singing hosannas to tricked-out hot tubs? Indeed, no one would’ve batted an eye in, say, 1986, had you cited “wealth” as a key marker of success—as, in fact, 54 percent of respondents did that year in a Wall Street Journal survey.

Recently, the success story has gotten more complicated. In response to still-sluggish postrecession economic growth, many people—employed and not—appear to regard professional achievement as a matter largely out of their hands. Yes, pockets of innovation exist—namely, Silicon Valley—but our drive to dream up new things has decelerated, according to economist Tyler Cowen in his latest book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. He notes that compared to the 1980s, 65 percent fewer Americans under 30 own a business. The upshot is, we seem to be looking elsewhere for a sense of accomplishment.

The top five ways people now gauge a successful life, according to a 2013 study conducted by American Express with Kantar Futures, are (1) good health; (2) time for the important things in life; (3) good marriage/relationship; (4) knowing how to spend money well; and (5) good work/personal life balance. By contrast, “having a lot of money” ranked twentieth out of 22 possible success contributors.

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Further filling in this picture, 83 percent of respondents to the Amex LifeTwist study (as it’s come to be known) described themselves as “a work in progress,” yet nearly 6 in 10 also considered themselves successful. They didn’t feel “less than” if they weren’t rich, and the majority said they were curious (more curious than even five years earlier) about finding new ways to feel happy in life. Among the top five items on their bucket lists were travel, but also, interestingly, “doing something with my hands.” The wish for, well, buckets of money ranked eighth, just behind the prosaic hope of “learning to be a better cook.”

It’s not that people have given up on making a good living, says Kantar’s Ann Clurman, who’s overseen data gathering for decades: “Money remains important to everybody.” But while baby boomers in the ’80s got to taste and achieve stuff that their parents may have only fantasized about—driving expensive cars, dining in fancy restaurants—many realized that “these things just weren’t doing it for them,” Clurman says. “They wanted more.”

Plenty of thought leaders are pushing us to conceive of success more broadly. After a fatigue-induced health scare, Arianna Huffington committed to getting sufficient sleep and made it her mission to help others break out of physically and emotionally draining 24/7 careers—and then wrote a very successful book on the topic, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

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In a related vein, New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued that pursuing money and prestige first—a trend he dates back to the mid-1940s, when the suffering and delayed gratification necessary during wartime gradually began to be replaced by a cult of self—has left many spiritually adrift. Reminiscent of Carnegie, Brooks swears by work’s power for good: Those eager to reconnect with their desire for love and redemption can do so, he thinks, by diving into serious, self-correcting work (professional or volunteer) that requires repeated grappling with our own flaws (greed, shallowness, or braggadocio, say). One admirer summed up Brooks’s theory, laid out in his 2015 book The Road to Character, like this: “Rather than neurotically increasing our long list of accomplishments, we need to lose ourselves in what we do, and success will come on its own.”

This idea squares with a cultural concept of success that, arguably, has been with us since our founding days: Even now, when so many systems and social bonds appear to be busted, more than half of Americans in a 2014 Pew study strongly believed that hard work begets success. And while a cynic might point out that the route to the top is so much speedier for those born into privilege, it’s also hopeful—and touching—that so many of us still believe that good things can flow from our innate, abiding ability to buckle down and work. And so, we persist.

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“I can work really hard for two days, but then I need three days to reflect. I can’t [have] seven days of m eetings and expect to think straight. I didn’t learn that until my forties.” — Tara Winans

This article originally appears in the September 2017 issue of ELLE.

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