Seda ’12: Success revisited

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Early last July, I decided to take a temporary break from my literature-laden summer reading list and instead picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” With its catchy subtitle — “The Story of Success” — Gladwell’s latest original work of nonfiction relates the stories of several individuals whom he calls “outliers” — that 1 percent of extremely successful and exceptionally talented trailblazers whom we worship as the epitome of inventiveness and genius.  

Although Gladwell seems a bit too eager to prove himself right and convince his readers of his groundbreaking discovery, he does raise a rather unusual, if not entirely provocative, point: Success depends as much on the personal capabilities of an individual as on the favorable circumstances around him or her.

All through his book, Gladwell seeks to demystify the somewhat arbitrary notions we as a society attach to successful people. He vehemently argues against the single-handed effort of an individual in his or her road toward a successful career by citing instances in which environmental conditions facilitated those very same accomplishments. In a nutshell, he contends that successful people can owe their glory to their intellectual prowess but are equally, if not more, indebted to outside and often fortuitous conditions.

Gladwell’s analysis may be born out of a desire to, for once at least, cast the spotlight of success on something other than the successful subject itself. Nevertheless, we can use his theory as a means to segue into our own interpretations of success and what that means to each and every one of us.

Perhaps it is because fall semester recruitment has woken up many seniors from the illusion of a never-ending undergraduate tenure at College Hill that many of my peers and I have begun to rethink what it means to be successful both at Brown and as soon-to-be college graduates.

It is by no means an easy task to undertake. As the levels of stress mount up and the competition for jobs and graduate, business, law and medical programs becomes evident, so does the heretofore arbitrary notion of personal success rapidly turn into a fixed concept. Success thus becomes quantifiable and strangely material — the end result of a complicated formula that can be pinned down to a particular career, employer, city and salary. The days when we took advantage of the freedom offered by the open curriculum and decided to craft our own definition of success seem to be a distant memory now.

Let’s face it: Senior year is a wake-up call of sorts that forces you to revisit your interests, goals and long-term aspirations and fashion them into a career or a path of study that is both fulfilling and stimulating. Factoring in the possibility of success into the equation is neither a faulty move nor a selfish concern. But buying into the idea that success is measurable by a certain standard — one where society places the value of success on the accumulation of commodities and capital above a person’s self-contentment — can derail our own goals and make us feel less adequate to fit that particular mold.

It is true that, in terms of career options, the job market is not bristling with a thousand possibilities for recent college graduates. It is perfectly normal, then, to be seduced by the allure of a career in investment banking, a life of jet-setting across the globe and the name recognition of an employer if that were to guarantee financial security and the promise of lifelong success.

Yet these symbols of success are not the only ones in existence nor should they represent a higher road toward it. If anything, success is so ambiguous, elusive and amorphous that, in a very realistic way, it is impossible to predict. There are many faces, stories and definitions of success that we constantly rework and reprioritize as the years go by. Above all, success should be a deeply personal appraisal that emerges from an honest evaluation of individual achievements and overall satisfaction with what a person thinks is important in his or her life. To close with the wise words of President Ruth Simmons on the subject of formative experiences:  “What I impart to (my students) is that they should never assume that they can predict what experiences will teach them the most about what they value, or about what their life should be.” As Brown students, we should take that advice to heart and embrace the many opportunities that life will offer us to be successful in our own unique way.

Lucia Seda ’12 believes that success is in the eye of the beholder. She can be reached at

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