To Hell with Success

A New Paradigm

How much have you thought about the paradigms you live by?  Have you ever stopped and paid close attention to them?  Have you ever seriously questioned the validity of any of them?   Some of them are actually quite insidious once you examine them.  In this article, I am going to look at the success-failure paradigm which is so rooted in our thinking that most of us are unaware of how much it influences our lives.

We apply this paradigm to almost every endeavor and undertaking we pursue.  Marriage is an excellent example.  How many books have been written about how to have a “successful” marriage?  There are books about how to “succeed” at almost anything–business, management, sports, relationships, investing, academics, and so on.  And of course, if you do not “succeed”, that means you “fail”.

What are the costs of this paradigm?  The most pervasive pernicious cost is psychological stress which takes many forms such as anxiety, unease, self-doubt, self-criticism, resentment, envy, jealousy, inadequacy, inferiority, superiority, excessive competitiveness, and of course, a sense of failure. Returning to the example of marriage, how many people have gone through a divorce without struggling with a deep sense of failure?  The truth is none of the pain and suffering caused by the success-failure paradigm is necessary, because you can reject it and replace it with a far more valid one.

Thomas Edison Revisited

Years back the editors of Time/Life Magazine produced a publication entitled The Life Millennium in which they rated the 100 most influential people and events in the last 1000 years.   They rated Thomas Edison the number one most influential person, mainly because his inventions such as the affordable incandescent light, phonograph, and motion picture projector revolutionized how everyone lived.  I gained some insight as to how he had achieved such recognition when I heard a story about him and his close friend Henry Ford.  As the story goes, they frequently took long walks together while they discussed current events and their endeavors.  One day while on a walk together, Ford turned to Edison and said, “It’s sad you had to experience so many failures before you had your first success.” (Ford was referring to the invention of the light bulb.)  Edison paused a bit before responding, then replied, “No, Henry.  I did not experience any failures.  I just learned what worked and what did not work.” 

What struck me when I heard this story was that Edison had discarded the success-failure paradigm altogether, and he had replaced it with a far more effective one.  What was his paradigm that worked so well as to bring him such recognition?

Process Versus Outcome

For Edison, life meant learning what worked and what did not work in order to accomplish something. So, if he made a mistake or did not get his anticipated outcome, he saw the result as new information that allowed him to modify or refine his actions to increase his likelihood of getting the desired result.  Rather than berating himself for making mistakes, he was grateful for the new information which was apt to bring him closer to his endpoint.  Without the success-failure paradigm, he was not afraid to try something different, he moved forward with gratitude, not guilt, and he was undaunted at the thought of making more mistakes.  

The paradigm shift you can make is to choose to live life as a process, rather than as a succession of successes and failures.  For example, rather than going on a diet to lose a specific amount of weight, consider entering into the process of choosing to eat in a balanced and healthy way.  Another example is to choose to approach your relationships as teaching-learning partnerships, where you are both learning what works and does not work to promote harmony, goodwill, mutual respect, and personal growth.  Maintain that intent and be willing to learn from each other.  Then if the relationship ends, there is no need for self-recrimination, blame, bitterness, or despair.  With this paradigm, you do not generate all the negative energy which is endemic with the success-failure paradigm.  (See “The Real Reason for Relationships.”)

How To Change Your Paradigm

To make a paradigm shift requires determination and repetition.  Start by paying more attention to how you talk to yourself because your self-talk reveals the paradigms you live by.  See my article on Sweet Talking to help you with this.  The other element to making a shift is taking the negative energy associated with the success-failure paradigm, and transforming that into an energetic rejection of the paradigm.  Hence, the title of this article, “To Hell with Success.”  If anger is ever justified, this is the opportunity to express it.  Get angry at the invalidity of the paradigm and indignant over all the psychological pain you have experienced because of it.

Living in process does not mean you do not set goals.  In fact, make it your goal to discover, discard, and replace old paradigms that are unnecessary and do not work toward your health and happiness.  By making process rather than outcome goals, you begin to live fluidly, flexibly, rhythmically, and boldly, realizing that whatever happens is another opportunity to become wiser, kinder, gentler, more generous, more creative, and more beneficial in all your pursuits and endeavors. 


  1. Raila Luminae

    Gardening has been a great teacher for me. It has taught me to look at everything I do in the garden as an experiment. Each summer I learn something new about nature, plants and myself. I cannot deny that I’ve experienced some disappointments in my experiments, but ultimately what I feel is gratitude for the opportunity to learn. I have now begun applying my gardening attitude towards everything in my life. Life is an experiment and I find great joy and a sense of freedom in internalizing this.

  2. athea marcos amir

    I really enjoyed your blog. Having wanted to be a clinical psychologist, but having had to change majors when required to take Statistics, I nevertheless retain a passionate interest in the field, especially abnormal psychology.

    When you mentioned Edison, I immediately thought of his having said, “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the serious labor of thinking.” I notice this all the time: many people don’t enjoy thinking; they prefer to follow someone else’s, hence the ubiquitousness of religion and the worship of cats and dogs, two facts I struggle daily to comprehend, with very limited success.

    I have figured out that when people say about their dog, “He gives me unconditional love,” they’re really, unbeknownst to them-selves, saying “I give him unconditional love.”

    Why would anyone with an I.Q. over 100, and the ability to think, believe in gods, devils, angels, and a “soul”? And why would anyone with an iota of self-esteem and personal hygiene want to cavort with filthy beasts?

    These situations are only understandable when we recognize that these people are following paradigms laid out for them, never examined for validity but unblinkingly accepted. Of course it’s only my hypothesis, but I deeply believe religion and animal worship are pathological.

    Personally, I see now that I should never have gone to college or gotten married. But in the milieu of Miami Beach, circa the forties, as a Jewish girl I was made to think I could either get an education or become a prostitute/drug addict. The choice was clear. And marriage? Of course we got married! What do you think, we were some kind of freak? Talk about seeing through a glass darkly…

    The only thing that has “saved” me is my refusal to lie about my feelings, when so often I meet people who aren’t even aware of theirs. I’ve asked people, “Are you depressed?” who’ve answered me, “I’m not sure I know what depression is.” If you don’t know what depression is, can you possibly understand happiness? As I like to tell people, “If I were any happier, they’d lock me up.” How can I feel this way, at the same time I know there’s a criminal in the White House and Black lives are being destroyed even as I write? I suspect it’s because I hear a distant train whistle signifying something — maybe it’s change, maybe it’ll be blood in the streets of the U.S.

    I look forward to your next blog.

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