Success and Accomplishment

How do we define success and accomplishment?

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Historically, accomplishment was tied to education (the sort befitting the sex of the person in question) and financial success. A man might, after receiving a classical education, study law or religion, then inherit a political or ecumenical position, and/or a series of estates, which would require some management but essentially bring significant income from the rent on these properties, or a return on any standing investments with financial institutions.

Women, should their family have the means and inclination, would be taught in subjects such as foreign languages, and various forms of ‘refined’ entertainment like singing and playing instruments, painting, and needlework. Information on how to run a household would also be forthcoming.

However, both of these types of accomplishment are based on class. Obviously, one’s family would have to have money and something like a title in society to provide this sort of life and education. So what of everyone else? Men could perhaps find glory in the armed forces, or the church, and women would, again, have to run households (however small), and perhaps work as a seamstress or milliner, and everyone else would work on one of the farms owned by the upper classes.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=17th+century&iid=7312717″ src=”6/2/9/e/Peasant_cottage_interior_4877.jpg?adImageId=9135178&imageId=7312717″ width=”234″ height=”190″ /]But did they think of success differently? These people with fewer opportunities to become wealthy or ‘cultured’? One must assume so, otherwise, what goals and satisfactions could be had if all accomplishments was left to the few wealthy families? Perhaps a well run farm, or a thriving small business, or in general an aptitude for the position into which they were, for all intents and purposes, born, or a talent for self-edification and pleasing society.

Most western societies now, have the same general concept of success – financial and educational (the latter being related to the former, at least ideally) and are, theoretically, at least, more socially mobile. The US prides itself on being a country where a person of the meanest origins can become a multi-millionaire. Education and health care are more readily available – heavily funded federally in Canada and most of Europe, although the quality of such does still largely depend on where you can afford to live and if you can afford insurance.

And, generally, we have more choices. Though the majority of people still have to fall into the lower section of society, simply by virtue of statistics, there are more types of business, more industry, and the implication (if perhaps not the fact), that anyone with enough determination can reach the top, regardless of class, colour, or creed, in a career that interests them beyond the potential for remuneration.

It is this last assumption with which I take issue, having recently sparred with someone over the truth of it. They iterated that some young upper class women of their acquaintance were in law school, and had done very well for themselves, in contrast to the slightly older people he knew at work (a store), where he and his coworkers all believed themselves to be unaccomplished, unmotivated people who, though not necessarily unhappy, could not claim the kind of success these young women appeared to have.

To me, this is immediately problematic as the people in question were already favoured by access to the best education possible, in all likelihood because of, yes, inherent aptitude, but also because of the best schools they were able to attend due to their family’s financial privilege, whether it be the cause of living in a nice neighborhood with a better local school, or the ability to pay for a private school and exam review courses and the like.

Does this mean that people from lower quality schools never achieve the same thing? Of course not, but while I salute the women for knowing what they wanted and achieving it, but to insist that it had absolutely nothing to do with social advantages is foolish. Moreover, the implication that anyone who works in a shop or some other working class position is somehow unmotivated and less accomplished than these women is insulting.

Yes, perhaps the individuals to whom this person referred consider themselves capable of greater things, but they both haven’t quite decided what that is, nor seen the kinds of opportunities (often provided by familial or school connections) that might suggest a particular line. These are people who do genuinely have to start at the bottom, of whatever industry or industries they think might being them the most enjoyment. And, particularly in an economic climate where millions of people are unemployed, the competition for the few positions available is going to be steep.

In the meantime, of course, people have to eat. (This is leaving aside, for the moment, the idea that some people might actually want to work in a shop, with perhaps the aim of having their own some day). Success, in this case, would be finding the money to pay for basic necessities and having enough left over for a satisfying social life.

Additionally, of course, everyone defines success and accomplishment differently. Not all accomplishment has to cost thousands of (insert appropriate currency here). Some goals are more personal – traveling, creating art, self-edification, buying property, having a family, etc. And although society at large likes to have an easy way of judging the success of other people, bank balance and the job title on a business card seem ultimately quite shallow.

While I do hope that one day we live in a society where everyone truly does have equal opportunity to achieve whatever dream they have for themselves, and there isn’t such a gross gap between the highest and lowest earners in society (there is no reason for anyone in the West to live below the poverty line. Not when CEOs could drop their salary by half, still be millionaires, and all of their employees could make 10K more per annum), any estimation of accomplishment and success, of oneself or others, should take into account both what that person wants for themselves, and where they’re starting from. It’s a lot harder to reach the top from the bottom than from the middle.

Or maybe we shouldn’t judge at all. But then, I suppose we need things to admire in others to inspire ourselves.

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