Tao of the Zentropist

December 29, 2010

Success Nourishes Hope

The Scottish Clan Ross, of the Northern Highlands, bears an interesting and inspiring family motto worthy of comment.

Spem Successus Alit. “Success Nourishes Hope.”

If we all fundamentally agree that to be stripped of hope is to be stripped of a crucial human belief that is absolutely essential for progress and our well-being, understanding the causality between “success” and “hope” and making the necessary psychological and attitudinal adjustments to maintain our definitions  of each no matter the external circumstances facing us is vital.

It is always worth remembering that “success” is often relative and subjective, and like failure, it is by no means permanent should we grow complacent, lazy or arrogant. In part it is a mindset and even a habit, and something worthy of striving for and pursuing with our full attention and vigor.

DEFINING SUCCESS

How we individually and collectively define success is in part influenced by our personality makeup and societal conditioning. For many, the accumulation of material possessions is high on the list of defining success. In a competitive, consumer-driven society addicted to spending and maintaining an image, this is perhaps understandable, although its sustainability has obviously come into question over the past several years. For others, the quality of relationships and interactions with family, friends and even strangers is given the most weight. Some choose to focus on acquiring as much as possible (and not strictly in a material sense), through whatever means necessary, placing the emphasis on the feeding and aggrandizement of their own ego and self. Others believe that “giving back” or serving others in whatever capacity one’s natural talents and capabilities allow is the true measure of success.

What is clear from these diverse viewpoints is that success comes down to a value judgment, no more and no less. We might condemn a particular attitude or view as being wrong-headed or undesirable, and feel rather smug and self-satisfied with our moral superiority, but to whom must we give account? Our belief in whether our actions in this world reflect upon our soul in some other realm of existence is most telling in this regard. Do we choose to act in a particular manner out of a “nobleness of intent” or “purity of our spirit,” or rather out of a fear of punishment in this world or the next?

As Marcus Aurelius observed, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”

MAKING PEACE WITH SETBACKS AND OBSTACLES

No matter how we personally define success, invariably there will be peaks and valleys, times of abundance and scarcity, and perhaps even a sense that either our “best is behind us” or that the future is so uncertain as to diminish our sense of hope. These are the times when remembering our past accomplishments, even if we think them humble, point to our ability to realize success on our own terms and encourage us to believe such success is repeatable and within our capability.

Failure comes when our “reach exceeds grasp” and we attempt to achieve something that we are unprepared for, or which circumstances prohibit, in the moment. We learn by doing, and this is true in every aspect of human endeavor. Virtually all entrepreneurs have encountered “failure” of one degree or another in pursuit of their dreams; what separates those deemed “successful” from those who are not is their ability to learn from past mistakes, make adjustments, and apply the lessons learned to either the venture in which they initially stumbled or a new one. Sure, some setbacks are more formidable and daunting than others, but oftentimes this can be mitigated by recognizing when one is on an inadvisable course and having the wisdom and courage to change direction before the worst case scenario is realized.

We do well to consider that obstacles are ultimately opportunities for us to grow, to test our mettle and fortitude in ways which we otherwise might not. Sometimes this involves improving certain skills, or learning new ones. Sometimes it’s about adjusting our attitude or our expectations. While going through such a time may force us temporarily to “eat bitter,” it is essential that we not allow the experience to make us bitter.

It is always worth remembering Plutarch’s admonition that, “The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.”

WHAT PERSISTENCE TEACHES US

Most things will yield to hard work, determination and commitment. But perhaps not all. While it is important that we never give up on our dreams, we must also learn to interpret these dreams in new ways, or understand the underlying motivations for them. While we do not always realize it, there are more often than not many paths to the top of a mountain. Some of those paths are more scenic. Some are more arduous. Some are longer than others.

Hope may be nourished by success yet it is also driven by our expectations. It is our constant striving to be a little bit better than the day before. It is our ability to recognize and acknowledge incremental progress and to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness.” Finding the kindling to ignite the flame may be a challenge at times. That’s okay.

Because when we find that kindling, and coax forth the flame, we have realized a non-trivial success. And from that tiny ember, hope springs forth, and the journey continues…

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December 22, 2010

Decoding “The Narrative”

Filed under: Commentary — zentropist @ 4:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, or are even consciously aware of it, our lives are often influenced, if not governed, by “The Narrative.” So what exactly is the Narrative?

In short, the Narrative is the set of beliefs, assumptions, pre-conceptions and myths that we choose, individually, collectively and institutionally, to give shape to how we perceive the world. It’s the filter or prism through which we consciously and sub-consciously view our role as players on this temporal stage, and how we more often than not rise to or simply settle for the expectations and limitations imposed upon us.

The Narrative is most certainly subjective; it can contain truths, so far as we understand them, but it also may contain lies, deceptions, distortions and disinformation. At times it may serve us, while at other times it destroys us. If we never challenge it, it remains indifferent; the moment we hold its gaze too long, it rears its head and we’re faced with either challenging and subverting it, if not defeating it, or submitting to its raw power.

THE PERSONAL NARRATIVE

It is the rare individual that never suffers from self-doubt or feelings of recrimination, particularly when things don’t seem to be working out as planned or desired. It’s easy to fall victim to the pessimistic internal voice that can be self-defeating and self-limiting if given free rein, which is why so many motivational speakers, philosophers and others who dispense their wisdom emphasize the need to remain positive and optimistic no matter the circumstances, because ultimately every moment is transitory and, “This too shall pass.”

By becoming self-aware, we are better able to counter-act and balance our personal Narrative when it turns overly pessimistic, and by the same token, we can remain humble and grateful when the other extreme strikes and we tend towards over-confidence, hubris and arrogance and believe that our current success is either “owed” to us or solely the creation of our own greatness and genius.

The early Romans of the Republic Period understood this when they awarded a victorious military commander a “triumph” and allowed him to ride through Rome on a chariot to the adoration of the masses. Tradition stated that the triumphant general would have a slave accompanying him in the chariot, constantly whispering the refrain, “Remember that you are mortal” lest the magnitude of the rare honor lead to behavior not conducive to the Senate’s rule.

Ultimately, as individuals we must not allow the personal Narrative to limit our potential, nor should we allow it to justify behavior which ultimately reflects poorly on ourselves. If we are inclined to see ourselves as  “extraordinary” and capable of making lasting contributions to the world around us, it is up to us to live up to that standard and realize this potential. Conversely, I would urge those that see themselves in a different light, and who feel their gifts or abilities are meager or poor to realize that their potential to impact the world in a positive manner is far greater than they imagine. They just need to get out of their own way.

THE COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE

The collective Narrative can be found at both an institutional and societal level. Like the billions of personal Narratives found on this planet, it is rife with half-truths, closely held beliefs rooted in unquestioned assumptions, and other detritus and noise which often obscures objectivity and rational analysis. It can be found in our incessant need to compete and win at all costs, to prove the status or establish the dominance of the institution or society in question as “better” than those around it, as more evolved, or compassionate or enlightened, or whatever.

That’s not to say that competition is inherently bad, or that all forms of governance or leadership or moral values are equal. They’re not.

Freedom always trumps servitude. Compassion always trumps antipathy and indifference. But blind allegiance and unquestioning loyalty to any man-made institution, dogma or social construct is a dangerous path. The tendency to buy into “Groupthink” without applying any critical thought or checks and balances often leads to disastrous consequences. Human history is littered with examples of this.

We cherish myths because they speak to closely held desires. Myths are often rooted deep in universal psychological themes or motifs, and some perhaps hold kernels of truth around which much “color” has been added through generations of storytelling. So too goes the Narrative.

Yet just as we cannot and should not allow our personal Narrative to go unchallenged, we cannot and should not buy into the larger Narrative without continuous introspection and contemplation. The Narrative may have a spine upon which it hinges, yet it constantly evolves despite the fact that it is not sentient. It feeds upon the energy invested in it. It is constantly becoming

Never discount the power of the individual to change the Narrative, for better or worse.

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