On Success, And Who Defines It

When I was a kid, one of the boys in our pack decided that he didn’t like his gender-neutral first name anymore, and would prefer to be addressed by a more masculine nickname. A neighborhood kid meeting was called, we were all informed of his decision, and directed to address him only as “Rock” from that point forward.

Unfortunately, The Boy Who Would Be Rock forgot one of the most important Laws of the Playground: “Thou Shalt Not Pick Thine Own Nickname.” Within weeks, his requested appellation had devolved into “Wormy Rocky.” This was the nickname which stuck, and which every kid in the neighborhood and the school called him through the years that followed, and which probably still haunts him whenever and wherever his old friends gather, nearly four decades later.

I’m reminded of this story every time I hear representatives of the burgeoning “life coaching” industry touting “success” as a product that they can sell to the individuals who hire them — because the belief that a person can ever unilaterally declare himself or herself to be a “success” is just as misguided as a person believing that they can unilaterally choose their own nickname, especially when such a declaration requires adopting tortured definitions of the word “success” itself.

You may work hard, on your own or with hired assistance, to reach a point where you can declare yourself happy, or content, or self-actualized, or fulfilled, or comfortable, or pleased with yourself, or proud, or any number of other terms that address your inner emotional states, and those are fine and grand achievements, in and of themselves. Well done, you!

These positive inner emotional states are not, however, synonymous with “success,” which is a label that gains resonance primarily when it is applied to you by others, based on the cultural norms of the society or group in which you live. And as my unfortunate friend Wormy Rocky learned, the harder you try to pin a label on yourself, the more likely it becomes that the other members of your society or group are going to start calling you something derogatory instead, especially if your self-claimed label doesn’t correspond with their own empirical observations.

Success peddlers often market their snake oil by formulating a logically-fallacious world wherein the absence of a thing called “success” is equal to the presence of a thing called “failure.” They then define “failure” as a product of the choices made and habits embraced by their would-be clients, essentially declaring such failures to ultimately be the clients’ own faults. With their assistance, they claim, such choices and habits can be corrected, flipping the life toggle from the “failure” to the “success” setting, to be followed by continued (paid) consultation, lest their new successes lapse back into their pre-intervention failure ways.

This seems grossly opportunistic to me, and the approach seems designed to prey upon the insecurities of the more emotionally vulnerable members of our society.

At best, hiring a life coach or any other consultant to deliver “success” to an individual is tantamount to paying someone to play the role of a friend or a cheerleader, which may be an effective gambit for some, and perhaps even worth the money for people who place a high value on emotional contentment and self-satisfaction, and need such reinforcement to achieve it. No hurt, no foul there, really, if it is a satisfying transaction between consenting adults who understand the rules of the game they are playing with each other.

As prospective clients grow more emotionally or financially vulnerable, however, there is a real risk of deep damage being done to them when under-trained life coaches inject themselves into spaces that are better filled by counselors, financial advisers, mental health professionals, clergy or other properly trained and credentialed service practitioners.

Unfortunately, it seems that much of the “success” marketing in the modern self-help industry is, indeed, targeted toward such people, whose belief in their own perceived failures may be as much a function of mental illness or addiction or the crushing effects of a dire economy as it is a function of how their peers actually view them. Exploiting such people by selling them pablum and bromides seems professionally deplorable to me.

For people (or organizations) that are truly seeking to achieve tangible success in the eyes of their own cultures and communities, any hired help that they engage must be prepared to offer measurable, deliverable, meaningful goods and services, rather than simply touting some nebulous, all-encompassing, self-proclaimed definition of “success” as an end commodity itself.

When you step back and analyze such ill-defined marketing claims, the very concept of life coaching or success training as some sort of holistic, all-encompassing discipline is, ultimately, absurd, as jacks (or coaches) of all trades are almost always masters of none.

If you need help with job transition, then you should engage a proven employment counselor or human resources organization, not a life coach. If you need assistance managing your finances, work with a qualified financial adviser, not a life coach. If you need emotional counseling, work with a therapist. If you need help with organizing your living and working spaces, call a closet consultant. If you need time management skills, find a professional organization or continuing education center that offers such courses. If you need to improve your physical fitness, hire a trainer, or join Weight Watchers.

If you can afford a life coach, then you can afford these services, and if you can not afford a life coach, then many of these services may still be available at no cost from credentialed, licensed nonprofit providers in your community. And working with professionals who are trained to deal in and produce tangible, measurable outcomes in their specific areas of expertise is likely to reap you more long-term benefit than working with a personal consultant whose primary motivation may simply be to continue a paying relationship by doing whatever it takes to make you feel good about yourself.

Feeling good about yourself does not necessarily make you a success, though, any more than being perceived as a success will necessarily make you feel good.

Equally important, not being perceived as a success does not necessarily make you a failure. The world is not digital, and there’s a whole lot of gray space between the poles defined by those labels.

At bottom line, we don’t become successes by hiring cheerleaders to plumb our inner spaces with us, then declaring “I am a success” to a skeptical world around us, which may see strong evidence to the contrary in the very decision to hire a life coach in the first place. Anyone could achieve that form or success, and when everyone is a success, then no one is a success, really. How dull.

We truly become successes, rather, by looking to the world around us, understanding its expectations, and figuring out ways in which we can productively use our own unique talents and skills to meet those expectations. Not everyone can do that, so when a culture recognizes those who do, such recognition has merit, meaning and resonance.

And it’s always better to hear “you are a success” from someone who isn’t being paid to tell you that, right?