We Think About Success Wrong

Anyone reading this can be doing amazing things. If we’re not careful, in our quest to imitate the great entrepreneurial minds of our century, we’ll find ourselves running over a cliff.

We Think About Success Wrong
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

When you’re on Medium and you’re reading articles about all those successful people out there in the world — you know the ones, the millionaires and billionaires, the company owners — you probably find yourself pining a bit for that “special sort of mind” that allows all the Elon Musks of the world to really make it big.

It’s natural to look up to those people who we view as successful — it’s the sort of thinking that’s built right into our fabric. It’s also the sort of thinking that is, utterly an innately, treacherous. If we’re not careful, in our quest to imitate the great entrepreneurial minds of our century, we are likely to find ourselves running right over the edge of a cliff.

The truth is that we don’t need more good entrepreneurs, and that being brilliant at making a business profitable does not necessarily mean that you are any better than anyone else. Usually, these success stories stem from class as much (or more so) than they do from innate ability — but the point is that even when it’s innate and awesome ability that brings someone into the grand limelight of entrepreneurial success, we have to ask the question “is entrepreneurial success really that great of a goal?

We admire these people (mostly men) who make it big in the business world because that’s what our society has taught us to value. The lone gunman, the solitary inventor, the capitalist mogul, the Bruce Wayne archetype who swoops in and saves the world. What was that line from Justice League, when Barry Allen asks Bruce Wayne what his superpower is?

Barry Allen (The Flash): What’s your superpower again?

Bruce Wayne (Batman): …pause… I’m rich.

Because of the way our world works, it’s the people who are wealthy who manage to have the most impact on the world. Perhaps they really do come up with inventions that do new things in interesting ways (or, more often, do new things with old inventions) but the chance is pretty high that most of these people are not sterling role-models of humanity but merely role-models for capitalism.

In many ways, I admire Elon Musk. The man has clearly shown that he has a level of gumption that sets him apart from the crowd. This, combined with his great business sense and clearly innate intelligence, makes him a powerful figure. He has ideas about making humanity better — about making it possible for the next “dark age” of civilization to be reduced or negated altogether (an idea inherent in Asimov’s Foundation novels which Musk read as a boy). In one sense, his financial power is making it possible for him to push forward initiatives and technological products that really could have a positive impact on the whole civilization. On the other, what Musk has had to become in order to do these great things is a savvy businessman. I can’t help but wonder how much of his potential has been squandered because the only way anything gets done in our society is through the pressure of capital.

Regardless of stories like Musk, however — most of us will never be in a position to be a PayPal founder. Most of us will never wield that sort of power within the capitalistic structure. And yet we continue to idealize it and the figures who climb its ivory tower. The most unfortunate part of this is not that we are merely lost in a daydream, it’s that we’re wasting the potential we do have.

Anyone reading this can be doing amazing things. Perhaps you’re not destined to become an entrepreneur, and perhaps that is also okay — perhaps your goals need to be concentrated in a different area. Art, science, community — we all have wonderful and boundless potential to explore our own passions and joys. We’re only limited by the system that says we’re only “worth” as much as our financial value. By a system that idolizes the rich and powerful and keeps us from recognizing that we, too, can bring our intellects and skill-sets into incredible ranges of actualization — and that, together, rather than apart, we can make the sort of lasting changes needed to forever transform our society. Maybe we can let the giants of technology and industry lead the way, but only so far as they inspire us to raise ourselves up to our own aspirational heights (and never at the expense of others).

We can’t all be great business leaders, and, frankly, we shouldn’t aspire so low. We can be more. It’s time we start to imagine something greater.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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