Life cannot be meaningful if all it depends on is being successful, can it? Because if it does, then what happens when we have reached that success? Does life become meaningless after it? And if the purpose of life is to be successful then what happens to those who do not succeed? Are their lives pointless? Surely not, says Baggini. Rather success ought to be about becoming who we want to become by doing what we do. He refers to another character in Chekov’s play Nina. She is an actress and struggles to make a living but she is satisfied with life because she is an actress by being one. This kind of success – being by doing – places meaning within our reach, because it focuses on the process, not the outcome. “Whether we want to become good parents, teachers, artists, firefighters or just decent people, life can have meaning if we strive to be who we want to be by doing what is necessary to become that person,” says Baggini.
In his book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, professor Svend Brinkmann of Aalborg University in Denmark advises us to do away with being the best or doing the most. Instead, we should pride ourselves on being average. He sees more value in the George Bailey way of life than that of Chekhov’s angst-ridden celebrated writer. He believes that the best way to live is to live contentedly – integrity, dignity, character, loyalty and duty make up part of this.
I could have achieved more by becoming a celebrated writer or a savvy entrepreneur curating Malaysian food. But every day, as Baggini says, “I am becoming by doing: I write a little, I cook a little.” At the same time, as Brinkmann recommends, “I want to be content: to earn a decent salary and work regular hours to be able to enjoy life.” Perhaps my wants and dreams can complement each other, or perhaps they can’t. Maybe, to live the good life, my duty has to come before my passion. But if my duty consists of having a good enough job that pays the bills and leaves me enough time, energy and space to pursue my passion, then surely, that in itself is a success?
Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Svend Brinkmann on Amazon