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What makes a person successful? Someone saying so.

What makes a person a failure? Someone saying so.

In the capitalist framework, wealth and fame define success. It doesn’t matter how awful Steve Jobs was as an employer; Apple is hugely successful, so he is an idol to aspire to. It doesn’t matter how awful Ayn Rand was as a writer; her books defend this paradigm, so she is admired by the business community. And it doesn’t matter how awful Henry Kissinger is as a person; because he has status, he still has an influential voice. But if you are poor, regardless of how hard-working and good-hearted you are, you’re a failure.

It’s comforting to think of the world as a meritocracy in which hard work is directly correlated to status, but this is a just-world fallacy. In fact, people already redefine “meritocracy” to suit themselves. A recent sociology study shows that white people tend to be all for judging university applications on standardized test scores and GPA. That is, until they realize that Asians tend to perform better on those metrics. Then “leadership” in the form of community service and volunteer activity becomes the parameter to define merit. Actually, judging one by the ability to socially connect with others is pretty close to meritocracy in practice.

But it’s telling; people with poor grades are denigrated as lazy, but when Asians get top grades, we are told to loosen up and party more; in other words, be lazier. And grades aren’t the be-all and end-all of a student’s merit; some just learn slower 0r have more difficulty communicating their work. You will always hear of people who struggle to get a C and consider people getting an A with far less effort as mocking them. And there are many whose aptitudes fall outside English and Math. By themselves, they don’t measure a person’s sincerity, empathy, especially not autonomy, or any other virtues.

It’s the same with poverty. I’ve spent time in a minimum-wage McDonald’s job. The hours are unpredictable and the work is menial, but more intensive than any other work experience I had. The idea that poor people don’t work hard is bullshit. No one wants to be idle. It’s dull and boring and sucks any sense of meaning out of your life. And as for bad life choices? Well, it’s easier to make them when you have money and connections to bail you out of responsibility (case in point, Rob Ford). I’m all for personal responsibility, but that cuts both ways. Stereotyping poor people as lazy and entitled is not only viewing them from a distorted upper-middle class lens. It’s a way to mentally dodge responsibility for their well-being. Similarly, men are better able to dodge responsibility for their sexuality than women, but that’s a topic I will leave to far more experienced bloggers.

Upper-middle class white men have a lot more influence on the paradigm of success than everyone else unfortunately, and it all comes down to social connections. Even when acknowledging heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., they whitewash their histories to be more complicit with the establishment. You will rarely hear about how Reagan and Thatcher opposed Mandela in favour of apartheid or King’s opposition to Vietnam. Other people outside the sphere of influence can be written out of mainstream history altogether, such as Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to DNA or the Arabs’ contribution to mathematics and civilization.

As it stands, we have a self-serving definition of success that values unquestioning complicity with itself and judges complex people based on a simplistic metric of money and social status to ensure those who are dominant remain so. We can do better. We can all contribute to a more holistic definition, a definition that values people for their unique perspectives, a definition that encourages challenging orthodox thinking outside the capitalist framework, a definition that encourages empathy rather than prejudice, a definition accountable to all rather than few. Those are merely my considerations of what success should entail. It is up to you to add your own.