I find walking downhill a frustrating exercise. I don’t sweat. My toes get squished up against my boots. My left knee grumbles at me. And my footing is only half-intentional, mostly I’m simply avoiding a fall rather than actually walking.
Climbing up, however, well this is among my favourite activities. My entire body feels engaged. Sweat drenches my clothes and curls my hair, letting me know how hard everything is working to get me to where I’m going. I’m sure footed, choosing every rock as if it was put there exactly for me. When I reach the top, the view, the breeze, the first gulp of water- all of these are well-earned.
This is not a “what goes up, must come down” metaphor. It’s just fact. Hiking, is about the climb, the up. The downhill is a side-effect.
But it did get me thinking. Is success similar? Is it also about the up? Are we supposed to be moving toward something in a subjectively upward manner to be considered “successful”? Is this where the anxiety of stagnation comes from? If I’m not gaining “more” of something – degrees, publications, impact factors, LinkedIn followers – am I unintentionally scrambling downhill on the success spectrum?
To touch on these questions, I want to go back to the question posed to my remarkable friend from part one of this post.
What part of you do you want to share most? The most widely that is.
Her answer was simply complicated:
Creativity and empathy. You?
Her creativity and empathy are aspects of her personhood that she’s deemed significant enough to share with the world, leaving behind something of note.
Throughout the rest of our conversation, I realized that any combination of ways I tried to answer the same question still resulted in the same two words: creativity and empathy.
In some ways, isn’t that the essence of being human? Creativity in the form of art, invention, problem solving. Empathy in the form of understanding different perspectives, offering support, guiding each other through difficulties and celebrating each other through triumphs?
We all have our different versions of creativity, and it’s often what we yearn to share most in our thirst for “Success.” The musician goes to school, makes the right connections, practices for hours to be able to share their creativity on a stage of significance. The researcher subscribes to a brandname institution, seeks funds, obsesses over H- indices to share their creativity in a journal of significance. And so on.
Imagine how successful the world would be if we all had the privilege to tap into that inherent creativity to do good. If it wasn’t some race to have your creativity overshadow someone else’s, but rather to complement. Imagine if our social networks were actually about connecting with one another and practicing empathy rather than self-promotion. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
If we shift the focus away from how can I be successful to how can I be part of a success-filled world, wouldn’t “Success” be defined as contributing to an environment that enables all of us to have the capacity to exercise our creativity, and the tools to flex our empathetic muscles in support of such creative pursuits.
Sure, some of this is naive, but even more naive is the attribution of success at the individual level. We don’t exist in vacuums. Yet.
Writer’s note: Part 3 of grappling with “Success” while scaling up (and unfortunately down) mountains, coming soon.