On doing and being
Any of us can learn to enrich our lives by dispensing with shallow notions of success or failure in the pursuit of something greater, says Jennifer Kavanagh
Success and its frightening shadow, failure, are embedded in our culture. From birth onwards we are urged to achieve, go further, make our mark and, yes, beat others. They create a context in our lives of pressure, competition, and status anxiety. Can we imagine a life without them?
“It’s not the winning that matters, but the taking part”, is a caricature of English sportsmanship that has often been used to excuse poor performance. But maybe the old cliché represents a deeper understanding. The notion of success is to arrive at some pinnacle: a fixed, if temporary, state. That may be true of physical feats – the best that a body is capable of at any given time – but can never be true of our whole selves. There can be no end to the growth of our wisdom, our understanding, our love. Even as we age, and it seems as if our capabilities are shrinking, we can grow until the moment of our death – and who knows what we might grow into then?
Success and failure are concepts that depend on our own or others’ expectations, and require an almost exclusive focus on goals and outcomes. Such a focus tends to exclude the vision, the content and the process. It ignores the fact that the incentive to do something, our motivation, may come not from external factors, but from the attraction of what we are actually doing. We may enter into something simply because we want to, just feel like doing it, feel drawn to it, or because we like the challenge. It may be that in the process of doing it we find fulfilment. In those cases, the work, the action, is likely to lead to a greater degree of satisfaction, indeed, to happiness. And, incidentally, research shows that if our motivation is intrinsic, a “successful” outcome is more likely.
Work that is good in itself, not with reference to anything anyone else might be doing, is often its own reward. I recently watched a short film about a group of men freeing a humpback whale that had got caught up in fishermen’s nets, and was near to death. At first, one of the men swam near the whale, aware that the frightened animal could, with one blow, kill him. With his knife, first in the water, then with others in the boat, he slashed at the net, freeing first one dorsal fin, then the other, and finally the whole animal was free. As the whale swam off, the man turned to his companions, punched his fist in the air, and shouted: “We did it!” Success – and pure compassion.
Focusing entirely on the result of our actions is to deny the richness of the experience. As Thomas Merton wrote:
Do not depend on the hope of results… You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
(From A Letter to a Young Activist)
While it is possible to objectivise goals and outcomes, it is harder to do so for what lies in between: the actuality, the experience itself, in all its richness and complexity. To take another cliché: “Better to travel hopefully than to arrive”: it’s the journey, the process, that matters. If we do what we do from an authentic, centred position, surely that is all we are required to do, or, more importantly, to be.
But, as one of my friends pointed out, outcomes are still important: in cooking a meal or building a wall, the end result matters. The truth of the maxim “the medium is the message” has very broad applications. Just as in great art, form and content have a symbiotic relationship, so in the wider world, too, process and outcome are mutually defined. Gardening is a perfect example of the interconnection. To grow anything takes time, and requires some vision of what the future will hold. Guarding against pests and disease, birds and inclement weather, may interfere with our best endeavours. The plants may simply fail to grow. Uncertainty is part of the package. But the activity is for many the main pleasure; the feel of the soil, being in the open air, the physical exercise, the handling of the seeds and plants; delight at the appearance of a tender shoot; involvement in the cycle of seasons. The picking and eating of the fruit and vegetables is part of a continuum of contentment.
The celebrated pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, had a more profound understanding of success than his own considerable musical achievements. “Of course there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”
Jennifer Kavanagh gave up her career as a literary agent to work in the community. She currently facilitates conflict resolution workshops, runs retreats, and gives talks on the Spirit-led life. She is an associate tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and has written six books, most recently, The Failure of Success: Redefining What Matters (O Books, £9.99)
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.