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Success, ghosts, and things.

DOES SUCCESS MATTER? It seems as if we've defined two types of people, the successful, and the other kind. How do you rate yourself? I've had problems with such two-valued judgments. Have you?

Somewhere in the process of growing up I decided to limit my success. I made a sort of tacit contract with certain peers and role models that my achievements wouldn't surpass theirs. Because others may have done likewise, I'd like to explore how we can annul this unproductive contract made before we had the maturity to decide how we'd perform in the world.

For some reason we adopted the habit of below-potential achieving, a habit that continues into our adult years. As part of the same bargain, we also continue to avoid striving for some goals we really want.

The Ghosts of Judgments Past

We limit ourselves now because of an old contract with those who once judged us wrong in our behavior. For some reason we accepted their criticism. Although those people and conditions don't exist now as they did then, we still carry a powerful image of them inside us. We each hold private memories of those who made us feel small when we did well. Time passes, people grow and change. Yet inside us, the ghosts live on unchanged. Because the circumstances of those old judgments no longer exist, I call them the ghosts of judgments past.

When I Succeed, I Feel Guilty

Occasionally in life you'll succeed more than you "should." Success leaves you feeling uneasy because you know you shouldn't surpass your ghosts of judgments past. You don't enjoy your achievements. Compliments embarrass you. You feel it happened by a fluke, not through your ability. You feel guilty and tend to denigrate your success. "Just luck," you say. You start thinking superstitiously -- you "know" your good luck won't last.

Once we realize that we've held ourselves back because of the criticisms of past associates, we may feel an urge to blame them. This will do no good. Blaming negates our responsibility for our part in the contract. Today's ghosts arise from abstractions we made long ago. We selected part of the picture and accepted it as the totality, then kept that fragment alive all these years as a definition of how we perform.

In this sense, we created our own ghosts.

Annulling the Contract

If we constructed our ghosts, we can dismantle them. We can annul that obsolete contract and begin successfully achieving our goals.

We can aim for goals we really want but had avoided seeking.

Some of the techniques I use to change my orientation toward performance come from general semantics.

General Semantics and Success

General semantics taught me to think carefully about labels, meaning, maps and territories. Do we need to reevaluate what we mean by that label success? What territory does the map success represent?

In general semantics, we'd call the term success a higher-order abstraction because it belongs to the verbal world, and has some distance from the world of objects and events.

Reifying Success

Although you can perceive its results, you can't smell, see, taste, touch, or hear success. Sometimes we act as if we could.

In ordinary usage, we try to make the term success perform several tasks, to evaluate things we do, to define the results, to define the doer. General semantics calls the use of one word to mean many things multi-ordinality. The multi-ordinality of success does not encourage clear thinking when we use the term to define how we feel both about ourselves and about our performance. Could we clear up some of its ambiguity?

(a) The term success relates to one result of an activity that goes on inside us, the process of evaluating progress toward a goal.

(b) We then project that evaluation's outcome onto the external world where it appears as an object, separate from us.

(c) We also turn the goal-seeker into an object labeled according to the evaluation's outcome: "She's a success."

Conventional grammar categorizes success as a noun. To reify success -- to turn into a thing -- encourages us to think of success as something we can acquire or own. Such "magical" conversion of an intangible into a tangible creates confusion. In our thinking it falsely transforms a human activity that goes on inside-our-skins, evaluating, into a separate thing out there.

Success and Identity

Conventionally, success may mean a place we can reach in life's journey, a thing we can acquire, or a state of being we can achieve. "He's made it." "She's got it." "You're a success." This notion of success affects you profoundly because it defines your identity.

"What am I?"

"I'm a success."

To say that success equals thing, person, or state of being provides you with some kind of map, but a map of what?

The term success has to do with the act of measuring an activity, the activity of goal seeking. We want to avoid reifying the term, to avoid turning success into a thing. Could we use a process definition, success as the process evaluating which we use to measure the process goal seeking?

success: A term that measures |measuring: a process~ the process of seeking a goal.

Having defined success as a higher-order abstraction that measures goal seeking, can we use general semantics to fine-tune and apply this abstraction to real-life situations?

Non-Aristotelian Success

If you took a non-Aristotelian approach, you'd think also in terms of degrees of success, not just the Aristotelian polar-opposites of "success-failure."

On a scale of one to ten, I give myself eight for not eating too much chocolate.

Dating and Success

You could apply the extensional device dating:

...for not eating too much |, July 1~.

Indexing and Success

You can use index numbers to separate one unique event from another.

I succeeded in job |application.sub.15~ when I found employment at the chocolate factory.

A non-Aristotelian logic gives you a range of evaluations, rather than the either-or of total success or total failure. Such mapping better portrays the many-valued territory of daily experience.

Dating and indexing help you use success to evaluate the outcome of individual attempts to achieve specific goals at specific times. You have met certain goals, partially achieved some, and not met others.

Units of Success

We categorize each goal-seeking event in unique, manageable units. One unit of success or failure does not profoundly and permanently affect my whole life. Whatever the outcome today, I will continue to seek my goals because I believe that one backward step will not negate the entire journey.

You Can't Steal Success

If success does not constitute an object, then the laws of scarcity do not apply -- I might steal your chocolate, but I cannot steal your success. My success does not detract from yours because we define success as a measure of goals met, not a thing. When I succeed, I do not feel guilty because such feelings arise from the false assumption that my success somehow robs you of yours.

Applying general semantics to my evaluating has helped me manage both my successes and my failures. Avoiding success-as-identity means that success or failure do not permanently affect my self-image, even though after a specific failure I may feel discouraged for a while. General semantics gives me the courage to try, when in the past I might not have tried.

Do I accept achievement less grudgingly than did my ghosts of judgments past? They probably had their own ghosts of judgments past. Of course, ghosts don't exist, except in my imagination. And I refuse to give those nonexistent ghosts the power to define how I perform.

Paul Dennithorne Johnston, Executive Director of the International Society for General Semantics, has published numerous articles and short stories, and two novels. Little theater groups have staged four of his one-act plays. Copyright |C~ (1993) Paul Dennithorne Johnston
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:success as an achievement process
Author:Johnston, Paul Dennithorne
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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