Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 4

This is the 4th entry in this series, about Survival, Success, and Significance. In previous entries, we have discussed some reasons why survival, success, and significance, are such essential aspects of the human experience. Working definitions were established for each, so that, we can have a shared basis, for speaking about these topics.

Here our focus will be on just two key aspects of the human experience, those of survival and success. We often run into the problem of confusing survival and success because in many circumstances, they can appear to us as the same thing. When this happens, we can find ourselves making many kinds of errors and misjudgments, that could otherwise be avoided.

Throughout this entry, we will look to see where we might find a good model for considering the relationship between survival and success. As is frequently the case, in this complex world, there are almost certainly many ways of looking at these issues. So, our aim here is not to find the one “right way”, to view survival and success, but rather to survey the field, and identify promising options. We should attempt to find guiding principles, that are powerful, accurate, and practical. Those that stand out from the rest, and can serve as a “North Star”, above what can often be the dense and sinuous terrain, of these very tricky topics.

One clue that might help us, is to search for examples that apply across cultural boundaries, and those that have also withstood the test of time.

Confusing Survival with Success

Perhaps one of the biggest problems we face, when it comes to the aspect of life we call “success”, is that it is frequently easily confused with its more essential sibling, known as “survival”.

You might be wondering how anyone could ever confuse something so essential as their own survival, with anything that could be so superfluous, as the fame and fortune, we associate with external success. Surely, you would always know, the difference between essential and non-essential, between practical and over the top. Undoubtedly, any person with a working brain would easily discern the difference, between putting food on the dinner table for your family, and putting champagne bottles on your table at the club. You might think that, and I would not fault you for it. I would have thought that at one time myself, until I realized how quickly and how seamlessly, survival and success, come to be conflated and confused, in the course of making our way in this world.

How is it that we can come to confuse survival and success?
I think there are many potential causes for this problem, so we will explore a few different ways to consider it.

The Red Queen Effect

There is something known as “The Red Queen Effect” that can be a powerful way to look at the interplay between survival and success, in many kinds of systems.

The term itself, is a reference to the Lewis Carroll book “Through the Looking-Glass”, which is the sequel to the more well known, “Alice in Wonderland”. In this story, Alice climbs into a mirror and enters a world where things are reversed, including logic itself. At some point in the tale, there are two characters, Alice and the Red Queen, who are constantly running, and yet staying in the same place. The joke is that in this strange mirror world, you have to run faster and faster, just to stay where you are.

Hopefully, you are starting to get the metaphor, as it applies to how we view survival and success, in the human experience. The basic idea is that there are situations that seem to conflate and even invert, what we might normally consider to be the domains of survival and success.

Imagine someone started out in life with very little fame and fortune. Then through a combination of hard work, some good luck, and a healthy dose of creativity, her life began to change for the better. This person may come to amass some substantial degree of fame and fortune. We would probably all agree that this person is no longer worried about “survival”, in the sense of not having enough food, water, or shelter to live. We might even say that this person has achieved the American dream, and become “successful”.

Unfortunately, success is not necessarily a static state. It demands upkeep. If you have 1 house, 1 car, 1 job, 1 vacation spot, 1 investment account pegged to an index fund, 1 social media account you use etc., you might not be that stressed about managing every little detail. There is enough slack in the system to soak up the bumps in the road. Now imagine what it might look like with a high degree of external success. Imagine you have 5 houses, 15 cars, you own 3 businesses, each of which has 20 or more employees. You are in and out of the country on business, and you stay at any number of mansions and suites across the globe depending on your schedule. You have contractors to deal with, publicity to deal with, 10 social media accounts to manage. Not only that, but you have products to create, books to write, employees to hire, and speeches to give etc. You start to see that merely achieving what looks like external “success”, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living on easy street.


The Grass is Always Greener

One day, while waiting for a late night flight from LAX to Toronto, you might see a young college kid, doing some studying just before his shift, at the airport Starbucks. You rush to grab a quick ice coffee before your flight, and for just a moment you cross eyes with the young barista at the register. Then it hits you, like a ton of bricks. When you were his age, all you wanted was the cars, the money, the lifestyle, the success. But now that you have it, and it's a part of your baseline standard of living, it doesn’t feel like anything special, but the endless hours of travel and troubles, are wearing you down. The kid hopes one day to have what you have. You hope one day to live as free and as simple, as the kid behind the register.

It’s not so much that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The real problem is that what you missed about success from the standpoint of the broke college kid, is that success is not just a sweet glass of orange juice on a beautiful morning. It’s the factories, and the workers, and the farmers, and the supply chains, and the distributors, and the stores. It’s that entire system that has to be maintained. As a result, your concerns begin to change from being about personal bodily survival, and they become entangled with the survival of the systems, that your success is based on.

Therefore, the true cost of success is not paid once, but over and over again, like a lifestyle subscription. There is a marginal cost of replication, for each turn of the wheel, that produces a unit of success. The higher that marginal cost, the more you find yourself running inside the wheel, faster and faster, just to stay in the same place.