How To Be A Success Detective

2010 October 10

I get unreasonably annoyed when I see someone “undeserving” enjoying success. It’s a petty impulse and shaped in large part by my desire to believe the world is meritocratic (it isn’t), but there you go. Talent, determination and ruthlessness you can’t really argue with, but the fact that Jersey Shore‘s The Situation is set to earn 5 million bucks this year or that the Duke student who made that elaborate PowerPoint presentation about her sexual partners is now fielding calls from publishers? Is there no justice in the world? Not for the jealous, evidently.

Photo by crowt59

But so much envy isn’t healthy. It inevitably turns inward and robs you of the clarity to fully appreciate your own strengths and it clouds your judgment to the point where you can almost convince yourself that copying someone else’s tried-and-true formula (conveniently offered in downloadable form at the bargain price of $99 for the next 24 hours only) is what you’re going to have to do to achieve results.

Not so fast. It might behoove you to look a little closer at the success you covet before giving in to the green-eyed monster. It’s what I do and what has saved me from developing an ulcer over society’s totally unfair distribution of acclamation. And the good news is that becoming a success detective is pretty darn easy. Start with asking yourself the following questions the next time you get annoyed at someone’s good fortune:

What’s the appeal?
What exactly do they have that you’d like for yourself? Hint: the answer is rarely as simple as money or power. Maybe it’s the freedom to live a more spontaneous life that having a large disposable income provides. Maybe it’s having your ideas heard and acted upon by people because your earning power provides entree into the social sphere inhabited by business or political decision-makers. Maybe it’s the possibility of forging emotional connections to strangers based on something you’ve personally created (a book, a song, a painting, etc.). Once you are able to boil your coveting down to its very basic impetus, you can start figuring out ways in which to reasonably get more of feeling x (control!) or condition y (respect!) into your own life, or you can realize that it’s not so much the qualities of success that you hunger after, but rather judgment about the undeserving nature of the person enjoying them that you hold. In which case, you’re gonna have to let that one go.  As mentioned, this ol’ world isn’t a meritocracy and no one tapped you to play arbiter of worthiness.

Is it relevant to who you are?
Maybe you want to lock yourself in the basement every Christmas when the dinner table conversation revolves around the operating room exploits of your cousin, Dr.Mike the Neurosurgeon (as your Nana refers to him). But while you might seethe at the attention he gets, remind yourself that you have no interest in medicine and get queasy at the sight of blood. If someone’s success is predicated on skills you don’t have/aren’t going to hone or interest in a field that has zero appeal for you, it’s pretty pointless to get bent out of shape by it. The fruits of their labor might be appealing, but if the labor itself would have you running in the other direction (not everyone wants to work 18-hour days, make ballsy cold calls or take one vacation a decade), quit wasting energy on coveting.

Is it replicable?
As part of their persona or their sales pitch, a lot of people trade on the Average Joe makes good trope and play off their success as something that could just as easily happen to you if you’re willing to work hard and eat your green vegetables. But could it? Dig a little deeper to determine what part factors such family lineage and connections (good ol’ nepotism), economic privilege, historical context, brown-nosing and simply being in the right place at the right time played. There’s only one George W. Bush, after all. Don’t let someone else’s perfect storm of privilege and circumstance convince you that your own efforts are lacking and that you could be in their shoes if only you hustled a little harder.

Expecting to eliminate all of your pangs of jealousy is unreasonable, but you can certainly put them in context, figure out what’s driving them and decide if they’re worth your precious mental energy to keep hanging onto.

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6 Responses
  1. 2010 October 11
    Ty Unglebower permalink

    I can do you one better. (Worse?) On occasion I get annoyed even when someone who has worked hard has succeeded beyond their dreams. Because I know, as you say, that hard work isn’t often the main reason someone succeeds. (For example, my own hard work not leading me to the same success as others.)

    But it is made worse when people have clearly not works at all to get some sort of success. Even if once people take into consideration your wise suggestions and eventually conclude they would not actually wish to trade places with those that have 4-leaf clovers shoved up their ass, being annoyed is virtually impossible to prevent. At least for a while.

    But your points are very valid, and I consider this one of your best posts.

  2. 2010 October 11
    Anonymous permalink

    I think the annoyance is part of human nature. Her hair is shinier than mine! We ordered the same thing, but his plate has more fries! And so on. Unavoidable to some degree.

    And I’m not entirely sure that for most of us the desire for meritocracy isn’t more than a little selfish, i,e. people wanting their own hard work to yield results. Sure, it would be swell if other people’s did, too, but…

  3. 2010 October 11
    Anonymous permalink

    What? Comments! I’ve been itching to write a comment on this blog since I first found it. Very exciting day for me indeed.

    I think you hit it right on the head. It’s almost impossible to control our natural instinct to be miffed or quite frankly pissed off when someone undeserving achieves some sort of success. I also have a hard time not being annoyed when someone totally deserving achieves success as well. But it’s so important to consider all of the factors at play before letting the jealously make you crazy. I completely agree with your third point – you never know what privilege have benefited someone else. You also don’t always know just how hard they’ve worked or how long they’ve been pounding the pavement. It’s important to keep that all in perspective.

    There’s still no excuse for The Situation though.

    I agree with Ty – one of your best posts so far.

  4. 2010 October 11
    Anonymous permalink

    Heh. The comments are an experiment in being more dialogic and less dictatorial. We’ll see how it goes:)

    You make a great point about not knowing what goes into someone else’s success. As well, we can’t know if they’re actually as objectively “successful” as we perceive them to be and/or whether they’re even enjoying what they have.

  5. 2010 October 12
    Evafortuna permalink

    Thanks for opening up comments! I love the blog, read it often, and need to absorb a lot of the lessons here.

    I have some of the most irrational jealousy when it comes to young people who succeed. Sixteen year old playrights? Thirteen year old authors? Four year old fine artists? Just kill me now. I know I can’t go back in time and make myself a child prodigy, but I can’t help the feeling of utter failure when I hear about them.

  6. 2010 October 12
    Anonymous permalink

    I think it bears acknowledging that the prodigy part sort of cancels out the child aspect. Sure, there’s prestige in graduating with a PhD in microbiology from Harvard at age 13, but is that worth trading in all the “normal” adolescent development stuff (i.e., being a kid without responsibilities, screwing stuff up, goofing off, doing nothing with friends, etc.) that would inevitably be cast by the wayside?

    I also think about child actors who hit the big time at a young age and what early success did to the rest of their lives. For every Jodie Foster, there are half a dozen Lindsay Lohans, ya know?