UR Here: Defining Success

Illustration by Jared Jewell
Illustration by Jared Jewell

I recently came across an article by “writer, entrepreneur, and video game designer” Jonathan Chee called “5 Key Traits Super Successful People Share.” Chee draws examples from four individuals of extraordinary achievement: a professional bodybuilder, a self-made multimillionaire, an orchestral clarinet player and a polyglot who is developing a new language-learning system.

What struck me about these four “super successful” people is that none of them seemed rooted in a community. In fact, the article seemed to imply that a life of community rootedness is antithetical to being “super successful.” I disagree mightily.

Chee says that the “super successful” “make sacrifices,” specifically of “anything resembling a ‘normal’ life.” By saying “their success has come at the cost of many things that most people value,” Chee has dropped the poison pill into community life at the outset. The bodybuilder sacrifices a social life. The polyglot sacrifices his native home to travel to immerse himself in language learning. The entrepreneur gives up paying attention to anything but the online coupon website business he is creating.

But successful community members make sacrifices, too, often exactly what Chee’s examples embrace—say, for example, a singular focus practiced in solitude or traveling wherever and whenever one wants. A successful community member embraces fully what Chee calls “normal life.” Deep social capital is built by long-term and frequent interaction with fellow community members. Extensive contributions to the community good—say, service on the city council or a long-term commitment to addressing a challenging community problem such as homelessness or hunger—require time and commitment that won’t allow you to pump iron for hours every day or constantly globetrot to learn languages or play in an orchestra. But why is such community commitment, which can require great sacrifice of the more “exotic” aspects of life, not considered “super successful”?

The second trait of very successful people, according to Chee, is that “they never stop learning.” What successful person—at anything—does? As Scott Russell Sanders says in Staying Put, a book of essays on community, “The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold.” For example, we have barely scratched the surface of understanding environmental sustainability, and people could—and many need to—stay home and help the community with their ever-increasing knowledge of fostering local agriculture, cleaning up our water or designing resilient urban infrastructure.

In the same vein, Chee says highly successful people “are not afraid to push their boundaries,” to break out of their comfort zones, such as the orchestral clarinet player learning jazz improvisation. But any community offers endless opportunities to bust that comfort zone wide open. If you’ve spent a lot of years on the library board as I have, maybe the next thing to do is to volunteer at Shelter House. I have spent a lot of time learning about our local and regional literary heritage, but maybe I should invest in researching Iowa City business history. You don’t need to just change your weight-training routine to push your boundaries.

Chee says “super successful” types also “hold off immediate gains for long-term benefit.” Ask any member of Iowa City’s Environmental Advocates or the Bur Oak Land Trust when nature in Johnson County is going to be finally all cleaned up and preserved.

Highly successful people also “have a unique attitude towards failure.” Basically, they pick themselves right up after setbacks and become more determined than ever. “Super successful” entrepreneurs, musicians, linguists and bodybuilders certainly do that. So do many of those who lose local elections, are unable to save a historic structure from demolition or fail to reach the troubled kid who finally runs away from home or worse.

I’m impressed by someone who rises from rags to riches, who builds himself up to physical perfection, who reaches the apotheosis of musical performance or who learns to speak with many more of the world’s people than I am able to. But those people are no less amazing than Irving Weber, who lived in Iowa City for 97 years and knew more about this place than anyone and shared that knowledge generously, or the neighbor who has been reading to kids after school and tending to the dying in hospice for decades. All those people got to be “super successful” by following the same principles that create astronauts, presidents, ballerinas and billionaires.

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