Discover more from Money and Meaning
Success, failure, and everything after
Redeeming the savage heart of the American dream
First of all, one of my favorite Simpsons bits. Because it’s New Years. Here are the most common new year’s resolutions.
A gym owner once told me that January is the “Black Friday of the fitness industry.” Feeling like getting fitter happier, more productive?
Success: yet another hedonic treadmill
We get so caught up in what we consider success to be. But think about what you thought success was five years ago. Is it the same today? Success is an ever-moving target, so we can all take our goals a little less seriously.
And even when we achieve success, it doesn’t lead to some permanent magical satisfaction that we imagined it to be. My friend Danielle alerted me to a story the musician Moby tells about when his album Play is on its way to becoming the biggest-selling electronica album of all time, with over 12 million copies sold. He is playing a show with Madonna, Bon Jovi, and P. Diddy in Barcelona. Sitting alone in his hotel penthouse, he realizes he has everything that a musician could ever want, and at that specific moment, he wants to throw himself off the window and kill himself. He explains:
I had just assumed that if I had all of those things, whether it's a degree of money, fame, validation, record sales, big audiences, I just assumed that happiness would result. You know, almost like the effort I thought the effort was in creating this career. Once I expended the effort of making, the career, happiness would just fall into place. And then all of a sudden, you have the career, you have the success, you're winning awards, you're making money. But the happiness isn't there. And what's terrifying in that moment, is you don't know what else to do. You know, if you spend your whole life, right thinking that climbing a mountain is going to fix all your problems, and you climb the mountain, you're on the top of the mountain, you're like, Oh, I still got the problems. And I don't have any other skill sets to use to address them. …That's why in that hotel suite, I actually felt like, I want to throw myself out the window, because I don't know what else to do. Like I've been given everything, [and I’m] miserable. And I am terrified that I will never figure out how to actually find a degree of peace and well being
Success, like consumerism or careerism, is just another hedonic treadmill. And it’s because we think the external will fix the internal. In this great interview, Moby talks about spending so much time and effort trying to be happy through external validation. We all have a hidden assumption that affluence, success, and wealth is this magical thing that will fix all our problems. But he points out, if that were true, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse would be alive today.
We all grow up with a belief in the centrality of success, and we’re all trying so hard at it. We’re keeping up with the neighbors, working hard at work, trying to build the perfect body, making sure our kids have all the right opportunities.Subconsciously, we all internally believe that if we’re successful, it will bring us happiness.
What if wasn’t true? What if success was yet another hedonic treadmill? The pleasure we get from success is caused by the release of dopamine. In scientific terms, they call dopamine the “promise of reward.” We feel an itch, a feeling of desire. Dopamine is a euphoric hit when you somehow relieve that desire. But if we keep feeding that itch, it requires larger amounts of success to feel an effect. That’s the cycle of addiction. Ever feel you’re on an endless cycle of pursuing greater and greater successes?That your career achievement from five years ago would no longer delights you today? Or that same car/house/piece of clothing you were so grateful for ten years, would not make you giddy today?
Dopamine is the experience of “pleasurable relief,” a temporary sensation of no longer wanting something. (A good working definition of happiness is not desiring anything). But the trouble with success, and dopamine, is that you’re going to want something again to feel “happy,” and that something going to more than what you already have. There is no “there” to get to, just an never-ending treadmill of effortful trying.
“I’m homesick all the time. I just don’t know where home is. There's this promise of happiness out there. I know it. I even feel it sometimes. But it’s like chasing the moon. Just when I think I have it, it disappears into the horizon” - Sarah Addison Allen
Jim Carrey once said “I hope everybody could get all of the money they want and get all of the fame they want and do everything they ever wanted so they can see that attaining things they want is not the answer.” Once you get to the mountaintop, you see there is no “there” there.
The desire for success is the root of both our workism and our consumerism. Or more truthfully, the desire for the projection of success is the root. Because beyond wanting to be successful, we want other people to think that we’re successful.Our desire for success is largely driven by external validation; what other people think about us. But constantly trying to get better is a form of what therapist Bruce Tift calls "self-aggression. "It's something we choose reinvest in, over and over, every moment. We actually maintain a practice, with great effort, of being aggressive toward who we find ourselves to be."
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you cramped and insane. - Anne Lamott
Material wealth, relationship poverty
Our endless, exhausting pursuit of success is only matched by our deep seated aversion to failure. Philosophy professor Costica Bradatan wrote in the NY Times last week about coming from Communist Romaniato the U.S. and seeing behind our constant striving:
I knew right away that America’s noisy worshiping of success, its mania for ratings and rankings, the compulsive celebration of perfection in everything served only as a facade. Behind the optimistic veneer there lies an extraordinary fear of failure: the horror of going down and going under, of losing face and respectability, of exclusion and marginalization. It’s not success, but failure — the savage fear of it — that lies at the heart of the American dream.
Notice that so much of our fear of failure is fear of social failure. We live in a country where, despite our incredible economic insecurity and stratification, no one dies of starvation. Only 0.12% of us are homeless. My guess is that no one reading this newsletter genuinely fears that for themselves. Instead, the threat is relational. Our real insecurity is that we’ll be seen as lower status, that we won’t be as respected, or loved.
The reason we have incredible wealth in America is that we built a system and a culture where we tell each other “you are not enough” and “you don't have enough.” We’ve chosen incredible material wealth at the cost of incredible relational poverty. And it’s important to note that they drive each other: our internal not-enoughness fuels our belief that more is better, and our external worship of success fuels the belief that we don’t really need each other. This is the savage heart of the American Dream.
Beyond success and failure, there is a field
I learned early on that there is something beyond what society has conditioned us to want, something more than just doing “better” than everyone else. I graduated highest honors from college, went to a top-five law school, and was making $150k a year (in the year 2000!) as a San Francisco tech lawyer. I had everything I thought someone in their mid-20s could want: money, an apartment in the Castro, a sports car. And I was miserable. And bad at my job. So finally I was fired in the dot-com bust of 2001.
No matter how externally successful we have been, if we following the agenda of the outside world, we are not living in accord with the truth inside us and our souls will rebel. Sometimes external failure is a call to shed what has previously worked for us in our hidden agenda to be loved and to find what is really true. For me, it was getting fired as a lawyer. I lost everything I thought I was. My parents stopped talking to me. I felt, both existentially and practically, like a failure.
The ego wishes comfort, security, satiety; the soul demands meaning, struggle, becoming… All those whom we admire in history had to go through something, and when they did, they learned on the other side that they were still there, though the world was different. Then they began to step into their possibilities and felt more completely the support of energies within.”- James Hollis
Carl Jung wrote that the “night sea journey” shows up as a crushing depression and anxiety but is really the soul agitating for growth, change, and a larger life. Failure, dissatisfaction, and depression are not things to be avoided, or medicated. Some part of us is dying, sometimes to a culture distracting us with sensation, arousal, and avoidance, sometimes to something not working in our lives. These are signs of your soul awakening and telling you that there is a deeper aliveness in you that your current life and its sureties no longer can contain.
That soul awakening is usually connected to a life with others. Nothing will protect you from the human condition. No matter what you do, you will encounter grief and loneliness. But across time and culture, the wise have discovered we are happiest in commitment to something larger than ourselves. We don’t do well only thinking about ourselves. Yet this is the society we’ve created.
On some level, we’ve despiritualized our society.I don't even mean this is a spiritual "God" sense, I mean that in our shallow and vapid culture, we've lost a sense that our lives and the world has depth. We’re told to want money and everything that comes with that, but what we're really seeking is meaning and everything that comes with that. We want to know that creation has meaning, that our lives have meaning, and that what we care about matters. In other words, we want to commit to something larger than ourselves, and be doing so, connect it to. As Robert Browning put it, "Without love, our earth is a tomb." Without love, we’re killing everything on this planet.
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” ― Howard Thurman
After I got fired as a lawyer, I decided that the commitment of my life was helping people learn and feel closer to their families. More practically, I chose to become a teacher. But even as I took a much lower salary, I still lived on half my income. As I reached FIRE, I’ve felt a greater security, creativity, and freedom. Hence all the projects of the last seven years. I don’t care about success and failure, what matters is that I’m faithful to my call, that I’m true. Or more honestly, closer to the truth about myself, including my blind spots, my hypocrisy, and my woundedness. Within me there is deeper meaning and movement, a love that, as Dante put it, moves the sun and other stars.
I believe you too, are seeking meaning. Whether it’s to your family, to racial justice, or to the earth, your dharma (truth, calling, duty) pulls you out of personal comfort and into the greater joys of being fully alive in this world.
“I have lived what I call a committed life; a life that is governed by my highest commitments, not by my desires. If you live a life of commitment, where you give your word for something larger than yourself, you are constantly in a state of fulfillment. I am not saying that there are no struggles, no problems. It leads you to a life you could never have planned. It does not have anything to do with ambition. It has to do with surrender. You cannot surrender to get that kind of a life because that is cheating. You have to really surrender and somehow it is given to you. When you're living a committed life, your own small desires start becoming petty. My commitment wakes me up in the morning and tells me what to wear, who to meet with, why to go here or there.” - Lynne Twist
By letting go of success, you will find presence, imagination, and full participation with life. Mystics call it the “verbing” of God. Trust me, it involves failure and surrender, painful things to the ego. But when you release the painful bounds of your not-enoughness and the constant efforting of everything you thought you were, a different life, both whole and new opens to you. The undefended identity, there’s no way to do this perfectly. And no other place to start than wherever you are. The world is our field of practice.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs [1955–2011], it is the crazy ones who think they can change the world, the round pegs in the square holes, who actually do so because they see things differently. If you see what does not yet exist, and you act according to what you see, you will likely be seen as a little crazy, out of center, a misfit or rebel. But if you stay true to what you see because the power of God is the light of your vision, then you will change the world because you yourself will be changed. You will usher in a new reality by your own transformed being-in-love. -Ilia Delio
If you’re interested in talking about success, failure, and everything after, reach out to me. If there are enough of you, maybe we could put a class together. Or contact me if you simply want to learn more about spiritual direction. Would love to hear from you!
“If fame and affluence made you happy, Donald Trump and Kanye would be the happiest people on the planet. And as far as we can tell, they are the two least happy people on the planet, yet people keeps buying into it.”
It could even be reaching FIRE. That’s a complex topic I want to explore sometime: did financial independence make me happier? It’s definitely given me security and opportunity to bloom. At the same time, it’s not a permanent state of contentment, I still experience pain and dissatisfaction. That battle is always internal. Overall, I’m really grateful to my past self for creating this life for my current self.
Yes this applies if you’re working at a nonprofit or are an artist.
The movie American Beauty skewers it so well: “In order to be successful, one has to project an image of success, at all times.”
We spend so much money on validation. Look at the clothes you are wearing. The neighborhood you live in and the way you furnish your house. The experiences you pursue, whether it’s vacations or brand name education. Sure all of them have some functional utility to them. But the majority of the cost of something is what economist Juliet Schor calls symbolic value. A $100,000 Mercedes sedan is not five times more functional than a $20,000 Honda Civic. Most of that $80,000 is symbolic value: the validation that you can afford to spend $100,000 on a car.
Communist Romania had its own massive problems, so it’s not he’s making Communism to be utopian; it’s worth reading his entire piece to see how lucky we are.
There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus asks his disciplines if when he was hungry, did they give them food, when he was thirsty, did they give him drink. His disciples ask “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? Jesus answers, “What you did to the least of us, you did it to me.” I think of that passage everytime I pass a homeless person in my neighborhood.
I referred to this in a previous post that our society has become demoralized.