The Story of Success

I recently watched a video that Hank Green made that’s titled Redefining What it Means to Matter and I could relate to it on a personal level. Growing up, my mother used to always read me inspiring stories about great inventors, pioneers, and trailblazers who ‘paved the way’ and ‘changed the world.’ While those stories left me inspired and provided me with wonderful role models to look up to, I’m starting to realize that they grossly oversimplify the real story of success. 

The story of the Wright brothers inventing the airplane and Ibn Al-Haitham inventing glasses made it seem like success is someplace to be reached, much like a destination. They made it seem like humans yearning to be successful need to work hard, and at the end of it all, we make it - we succeed and we harvest the fruits of our labour. 

This idea of success had infiltrated the way I perceived success and pursued it, and it worked  – for a while. In high school, I worked hard, got involved, sacrificed sleep and free time, persevered through difficult times, and at the end of it all, I made it. I graduated the top of my class, with a few awards, and an elite scholarship. Walking across the stage on graduation day, I was proud and genuinely happy  – I could almost feel what my role models must have felt when they ‘made it’. 

Much to my dismay, that soul-brimming feeling of joy didn’t last very long. As soon as I started university, I had to set new goals and meet increasingly higher expectations. Only this time, it wasn’t that easy. Success became more ambiguous and less tangible. Doing well on one midterm didn’t mean as much. Being an executive at a club just wasn’t enough. So, I looked for more ways to satisfy my craving for fulfillment. I pursued scientific research. 

On my first day at the lab, I was ecstatic. I was ready to work day and night to uncover a mystifying scientific mystery that would change the world of science. After four months of full-time work on a simple plasmid cloning project, I was disappointed. I wasn’t able to successfully clone the plasmid and my work at the lab become less exciting and more tedious. I celebrated small successes every once in a while, but they were never big enough to satisfy my craving for fulfillment. 

The more time I spent at the lab, the more I realized how complicated success is. The path to success was in no way linear or continuous and success isn’t someplace I’m going. It also became very clear that great inventions and discoveries are rarely the results of one person’s work. In the words of Joe DeGeorge, “tonight we feast on the labour of centuries.” This is especially true in science. Scientists work together to uncover mysteries and make life-changing discoveries. People work together and build on each other's work to make this world the place that it is. 

I also become convinced that I will never simply reach success and be content because life is made of stages and I will constantly be chasing meaning by setting goals, achieving them, then setting other goals, achieving them, and failing on the way. It is a long, never-ending, and tedious path that I am not walking alone.

So, the story of success is complicated, and we resort to telling these inspiring stories that simplify success because the real story is just far too complicated.