Rethinking Success


This article seeks to compare the different cultural appreciations of being successful in order to grasp the universal meaning of success. It will first analyse the concept of success in a western context, revealing that the words popularity is consequent to the “I-self” values promoted since 16th century renaissance. Then, it will ascertain how expressions of success differs in “we-self” societies like Japan. Finally, from these comparisons along with Chomsky’s universal grammar theory and Professor Michael Lewis’s work, it will assert that success is ultimately about recognition from the social group.

If you googled the word “success” in the UK, only rarely would you find a brief explanation of what it actually means, yet you would see an endless list of sites coaching potential viewers on how to be successful in life. Nonetheless, it could be asserted that there is a dominating image of success in the West reliant on your ascendancy in the social strata (the advancement of your “social capital” as Bourdieu would describe it). However, the idea that the latter form of success is achievable through hard effort and talent is increasingly refuted. Indeed, a recent study done by a group of MIT students revealed that luck is by far the most important factor: “The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest”. So why do we all still desperately aspire to this factually unfair concept?

The term success appeared during the 16th century with increasing frequency compared to earlier times, corresponding to the rise of Renaissance self-awareness and individualism. It is not a coincidence. As humanist thinkers were questioning their existence in relations to their surroundings, the importance of the individual increased and books such as “The Courtier” by Castiglione explained that success could be achieved through uniqueness and the artificial cultivation of the person. He would despise the “un-self-conscious men(...) who mechanically perform the parts assigned to them”. A successful person would serve his own interests, and was distinguishable from the crowd, not hiding from his fame and achievements. The rise of capitalism and liberalism furthered the wests tendency for self-valorisation and narcissism. A study done in 2010 revealed how American children, oriented toward an “I-self” view respond to success and failure outcomes with expression patterns consistent with the self’s perceived performance. Thus, embarrassment patterns of American children reflect outcomes: shame or pride depending on their own success. These results differ completely from the responses of children from we-culture.

Over the years, the west’s understanding of success has become so individualistic that Arthur C. Benson criticised it for its lonely nature. For him

“Success can be a heavier burden than failure, and often brings a sense of loneliness and dismay instead of satisfaction.”

Benson metaphorically compares success to the “Myth of Atlas”, a Titan who bears the weight of the heavens upon his shoulders on a mountain top. Interestingly, there is a statue of Atlas in front of … the Rockefeller centre! One of the symbolic centres of capitalism has for a statue the story of one man, on his own, holding no less than heaven. A beautifully illustrative metaphor to comprehend the individualistic appreciation of success in western nations.

We-culture have however, a different understanding of success. A good example of a we-culture is Japan, where success is about serving and not disappointing the rest of the group. The infamous concept of ‘seppuku’(stabbing oneself in the stomach) reveals how strong social pressures are in Japan. “The emotions in their country function on the need to focus attention away from the self and on the relationship of the self to others”. In effect, success is expressed in conformity, as japanese infants are taught to avoid shame and not to stand out from the mass. Therefore, their reactions to success “reflect their anxious ambivalence about being in a context where their performance is displayed to another”.

The question is, what sort of similar patterns can we identify in the appreciation of success between a we-culture (Japan) and an I-culture (the west).

Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory would assert that there is a universal understanding of “success” despite hugely different appreciations of how to be considered “successful”: we-culture tend to see success in conformity, in the interest of group, whereas I-culture’s tend to comprehend success in individuality, in the interest of the self. Chomsky would believe that we have the preset cognitive “structure rules” that are innate to us, meaning that we intuitively understand what “success” is , we just need the word and the criteria’s to know how to be successful. Professor Michael Lewis argues that these criterias can be “early failures in the self system that lead to narcissistic disorders(...), high levels of reward for success or high levels of punishment for failure(...) and the values and goals of our families, friends and parents”. However, having different social criterias doesn’t change the nature of what it actually is. Studies have shown that our understanding of success arise when we are 15-20 months old, when our self-conscious emotions emerge and we start to fathom the standards and norms from our social group. We start to realize our existence by opposing ourselves to others, and hence in order to exist we need to be recognized by them.

Ultimately meaning that success is about respect(or praise) by (some) of your counterparts. Whether you’re a welshmen creating an innovative company or a Japanese head of a well-established family firm, it all comes down to this drive for recognition.


Written By marc le chevallier