September , 2020
What is success?
19:41 pm

Dr. Sarfaraz J. Baig

In the wake of the pandemic, many of us have started questioning ourselves like never before. Many businessmen and professionals I know have seen a huge drop in their earnings or even a complete halt because of the lockdown. I was a little thrown off when many younger colleagues started speaking about their lives turning into failures because of this crash and worse, the future uncertainty.

This stimulated me to look for answers regarding the definition of success. So, I did some introspection and research to understand what is meant by success. I must confess before I start sharing what I learnt that there cannot be a right or wrong answer to this. Only the approach can be analysed. 

There are many ways of defining and measuring success. Common yardsticks as perceived by the majority in the society is wealth and power. Let me share with you the social experiment that I took in various friend circles (close to 500 people in Kolkata, mostly from middle and upper educated classes) to come to this conclusion. 

I asked people to rank the following personalities in terms of success- Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Sadhguru, Rabindranath Tagore, Narendra Modi and Mukesh Ambani. 

Common answers were - 

  1. Mukesh Ambani
  2. Narendra Modi
  3. Rabindranath Tagore 
  4. Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi 

Most did explain the rationale behind this stating that wealth and power is indeed the yardstick for measurement of success. However, 2500 years back, this is not how people thought. Socrates and the subsequent Stoic philosophers considered that success is defined by virtues and not what one possesses of this material world. Marcus Aurelius, eminent leader of the Roman Empire was a Stoic and practised stoicism in spite of being a ruler. 

Similarly, founders of religions like Jesus, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha were all poor or led an ascetic life. They advised individuals to look within themselves and focus on virtues - honesty, patience, courage, kindness, humility, equality and charity - rather than accumulation of material wealth. In this way, they made success within the reach of every human being in the world.

They also urged others to look at wealth and power as a test rather than as a blessing. What we do with it defines us. Jesus had said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a wealthy to pass through the gates of heaven. Probably implying how frequently the rich and wealthy humans fail the tests. 

This should not be interpreted as wealth being a bad aim of life. In fact, stoics had nothing against wealth. They did recommend gathering wealth enough for a good livelihood but they did recommend simple living for building virtues. 


This does not mean that all wealthy people fail the test either. Lord Rama is a great example. He was a King - rich and powerful but he did not let it touch his principles even when it came to applying justice to his family. And it is for this quality of his that do we consider him as a God. Not for his wealth and kingdom! 

A good example of success and failure is Moses and the Pharoah. Moses was a poor man compared to the Pharoah who was the king of Egypt. And yet, history would have us believe that Moses was a success and very few could have been a bigger failure than the Pharoah whose tyranny has few parallels in history.

This yardstick of virtues for measuring success may appear archaic and outdated in the current context of the modern and materialistic world which revolves largely around consumerism and individual interests. And this was what appeared from the response to my social experiment.

But I had doubts on the result. And therefore, I asked the same groups another question. I asked them to choose between Mandel and Hitler as more successful. All chose Mandela. I played this further and the results were similar. Newton is a success; Oppenheimer is a failure. Bhagat Singh is a success, General Dyer is a failure. The list goes on. 

It suggests that modern society indeed believes in the power of the virtues.  But when it comes to comparing wealth and power with service to mankind, the former resonates more. And with that I leave my reader to think - how would you rate success? Do you believe by losing wealth in the pandemic, are you becoming less successful? Or, by using this time to gain patience and practising kindness, you are augmenting your success? 

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