Survival, success, and significance, are, without question, three of the most important aspects of life. We often misunderstand them because we do not take the time to really consider what they actually are, and how to best approach each one. The standard view, if you ask most people, is probably; to first survive, then become successful, and only after that, try to find significance later in life, hopefully sometime before you die. That may sound harsh, but I think it is actually quite close to the truth, in describing the way our society, and our lives, are structured by default. Whether we say it explicitly, or merely believe it implicitly, this has been the standard rubric of life in the western world, for quite some time.
I used to think that way myself for many years, but this brought me to some very misleading judgments about life, that I am only recently beginning to correct. What took me at least 30 years to realize, is that although all three aspects are important, we don’t tend to treat them that way. Upon reflection, I came to see that the prominence and priority we ascribe to survival, success, and significance, is often erroneous and can lead us astray. I wanted to write this piece, to share what I have learned, and to remember why it mattered.
Survival, success, and significance are major components of our lives, and yet we rarely give them the consideration required to see their proper roles, and to make sound decisions about each of them.
So, what are survival, success, and significance? We will look at each one individually, so we can know something about what they are as separate building blocks. This will be essential to have in mind, when it is time to consider them as a whole. First we will learn something about survival, and then success. The discussion about significance requires much more time and space, and so it will be covered in its own section.
SurvivalSurvival is perhaps much easier to define and understand, compared to success and significance. A simple definition of survival, is just waking up to see the sunrise the next day. A more systemic view of survival might be, to maintain the minimum requirements, to keep a particular system going. A business needs to generate enough revenue to pay for expenses. A lion needs to gain enough nutrients from the hunt, to last until its next kill. A country must maintain its sovereignty and security to remain an independent entity. As individuals, we might have to maintain jobs, maintain health, maintain a house, all for the sake of survival.
Survival tends to be much more objective than success, or significance. Generally speaking, survival is the most binary. It is more of a final grade with a pass or fail, than a mid-semester essay rated on a curve. You either survive, or you don’t, and there is not much grey area in between.
A simple yet informative way to think about survival, is merely to say, that which exists and persists, survives.
SuccessSuccess is harder to define than survival. Whereas survival often has very rigid criteria, namely that the relevant system that was here yesterday, is still here today, in contrast, success is a bit more subjective.
That said, success, as I am discussing it here, is that which ultimately does have a largely external definition. One way to think about success, is to conceptualize it as the results of winning a competition, that is above and beyond mere survival. Every person alive today has survived from the past, yet we do not consider most people to be “successful”.
It’s important to note that I am not making a value judgment while describing external success. I am not ascribing a moral quality of right or wrong, to how we appraise success, at least not at this point. All I am doing, is pointing out that although fuzzy and debatable, for better or worse, as a society, we have some collective definition of “success” in the modern western world. This is true whether we find that definition to be helpful, harmful, accurate, inaccurate, all of the above, none, or some mixture thereof.
Our definition of success, in the modern world, is largely predicated on the accumulation of fame and fortune. Going back to the initial definition of success, we can see that fame and fortune fit the mold of signifying the winners of various competitions in life. It’s important to distinguish competitions for external success, as being above and beyond the concerns of mere bodily survival, from one moment to the next.
Immediately we can see that defining success is more subjective than defining survival, and yet at least to some approximation, we can, in fact, use some external metrics such as fame and fortune, to say something objective about success. Crucially, it is worth noting, that we can only define success in this way, from an external perspective.
To speak about the internal view of the world, requires us to understand something about significance, and its origins.