Would you consider yourself a successful person? If so, why? If not, why not?
Today, a lot of people think about success in terms of status—winning prizes and climbing the ladder. You’re successful, the thinking goes, if you go to a prestigious college, get promoted at work, and make enough money.
But I’ve come to see that our ideas of success are broken and elitist. As I explain in a piece for Quartz:
Popular thinking holds that a person who went to Harvard is smarter and better than someone who attended Ohio State; that a father who stays at home with his kids is contributing less to society than a man who works at a Fortune 500 company; that a woman with 200 Instagram followers must be less valuable than a woman with two million.
This notion of success isn’t just elitist and misguided; it actively hurts those who believe it. For my book, The Power of Meaning, I spoke to many people who defined their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements. When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.
In psychology, there’s a very different idea of what constitutes success—being a “generative” person. A “generative” person is someone who helps nurture the rising generations and contributes to his community. The psychology Erik Erikson, who coined the term generativity, gives a wonderful example of it in action in a joke he tells about an old man: “As he lay there with his eyes closed, his wife whispered to him, naming every member of the family who was there to wish him shalom. ‘And who,’ he suddenly asked, sitting up abruptly, ‘who is minding the store?’ This expresses the spirit of adulthood which the Hindus call ‘the maintenance of the world.'”
More from Quartz:
In other words, you’re a successful adult when you outgrow the natural selfishness of your childhood and youth—when you realize that life is no longer about charting your own course, but about helping others, whether it’s by raising children, mentoring colleagues, or creating something new and useful for the world. Generative people perceive themselves as part of a larger tapestry and seek to preserve it, however humbly, for future generations. This legacy gives their lives meaning.
I think Ben Franklin would of Erikson’s idea that success lies in generativity. Though Franklin was industrious and successful in the career sense of that term, he knew that a truly successful life lay in the pursuit of something beyond personal advancement—in living a life of character.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.