We take it for granted nowadays that we have to succeed in life. Yes, people argue about what really constitutes ‘success’ — is it personal fulfillment? A lucrative career? But underlying all these debates is the shared conviction that our lives should have some purpose.
From this point of view, it is hard to disagree with Washington. As individuals in charge of our own lives, we must use the hand we’ve been dealt. Surely the poor kid who grew up on welfare, overcame a toxic school environment to get into Harvard, and graduated to a life of power and prestige has done more with her life than the heiress who slacked her way into the same position. It seems like an open-and-shut case to me: one showed uncommon strength and courage to rise above what others might have considered her potential; the other did not.
The reason I am so certain is the definition I’m using of success. Each of us is born into a specific position. Each of us is influenced by culture in ways we can’t control. Each of us has a measure of inner ability which we can use to set our own destiny. Those who make strides towards leading the lives they envision for themselves are the ones who succeed.
What if someone were to argue against the notion of success itself? They might claim that there’s no reason for our lives to have meaning and direction. What we do can’t be fit onto a scale of success or failure. I reject this argument because that’s just not the way I think people are. But if you wanted to mount a case against Washington’s quote, that would be an interesting way to start.
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