Success planning: Why not choose the easy life?


Gemma Rose wonders if true success lies within choosing an easier life.

My Dad has often complained about not being fully accomplished in life. I found his regret very strange, because to me he has achieved so much. He grew up in a small town in northern Malaysia. His father had four wives and left my grandmother alone with five children and no child support. From about four- years-old, my Dad was shunted around from one family member to another, never really having much food or many clothes to wear. He was poor.

Yet, his saving grace was his intelligence. It got him a scholarship to boarding school, and then to university in London. He rose to senior positions in his jobs. He has a long, strong marriage and five healthy children. By an objective standard, one would say that my Dad has accomplished a lot.

I think, however, that I’ve inherited his sense of underachievement. Objectively speaking, I am fairly accomplished. I have a fairly distinguished job, I am in good health, I live in a lovely apartment, I am married to someone honourable and good. But, on the grand scale of things, I could have achieved more.

In the book What’s it all about? Philosophy and the meaning of life, the philosopher Julian Baggini, explores what it means to be successful, referring to a number of fictional characters who struggle to achieve success as illustration. For George Bailey, the main character of the film It’s a Wonderful Life, he is dissatisfied with where he has ended up – living a very ordinary life in small-town America – and contemplates committing suicide. His guardian angel shows him all the lives he has touched and at the end of the film, he realizes that he has led a good life and is valued and appreciated by those who matter to him. His life has been a success, but not the kind of success that society tends to value.

In the play The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Baggini cites the example of three characters: a celebrated writer who wishes he was more successful; a moderately successful writer who envies the success of the celebrated one; and the civil servant who envies the success of the moderate one because he failed to even try to become a writer. Thus, Baggini notes that success tends to be subjective, relative only to people more successful than us (rather than less), and elusive.