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What is Success?

Another issue, and an important one, that I’d like to touch on from Malcomb Gladwell‘s excellent new book, “Outliers,” is the issue of success. This bothered me when I read the book and has become increasingly troublesome since I finished the book. The book is subtitled, “The Story of Success,” yet Gladwell never really defines what success means. He discusses elite athletes, scholars, and businessmen (yes, men…he doesn’t profile women, unfortunately), yet this begs the thorny question of “What is success?”

Being successful is a relative term. In our capitalist society, people often equate success with wealth and prominence within a particular field. Yet, success is much more complicated than that. We’ve all met “successful” people in a particular field who might have several failed marriages under their belt, be an absentee father, have few friendships, etc.

This brings the idea of “opportunity cost” into play. Basically a term from the business world, it captures the idea that by focusing on one option and going that route, you necessarily have to then sacrifice the other options. There is a “cost” of doing business.

If we look at professional, athletic, or academic success as Gladwell does, the concept of opportunity cost also comes into play. There is an inescapable reality that there are only so many hours in the day. If we focus our energy and time at becoming…the best golfer of all time…great sacrifices will need to be made. Something has got to give. Thus, it would mean there is less time to devote to family, friends, a spouse, children…learning a foreign language, learning to play guitar, becoming proficient in a different sport…you get the picture.

Many people choose to sacrifice the type of success that Gladwell focuses upon to achieve success in areas that Gladwell does not. A personal example: I got into martial arts at age 23, which is just a couple months after I started dating my wife and right before I entered graduate school. Although I love martial arts, if I had chosen to devote 20 hours per week or more to it back then, I would have had less time to spend with my wife and on my studies (or sleeping or visiting my parents, etc.). Something had to give, and the choice was easy to make. I believe that I’m a successful husband and father, and that’s a type of success that Gladwell, unfortunately, left out of his study of success.

So, we must keep such questions in mind as we consider pursuing success in different endeavors: What is real success? Will pursuing this type of success help me to be truly happy? What will I miss out on by pursuing success in this particular endeavor?

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