April 8, 2014

JOHN | A Different Kind of Success

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By REBECCA JOHN

What does it mean to be successful? At Cornell there are certain ideas of success that we internalize, and they usually measure success in terms of quantitative productivity and recognition from those in power. No matter how much work we put in, all this effort is invalidated if we are not rewarded with some sort of formal acknowledgment that we have succeeded, whether that is a high-paying job or a diploma. We seem to enter university with dreams that gradually become to be less defined by us and more defined by power.

I’m talking about redefining success, but not in terms of some fluffy, neoliberal sense of self-gratification. This is not necessarily about finding the “positive” in a failure, but about seeing failure as a kind of success. Changing the world means defying what is conventionally seen as successful. This is about learning all the magnificent ways you can fail.

Changing the world means defying what is conventionally seen as successful. This is about learning all the magnificent ways you can fail.

Success seems to be defined more by gaining a stamp of approval from power rather than challenging it. It is building a school in Africa that will do more to advance one’s own career than to eradicate the poverty. It is upholding the status quo, or perhaps tweaking it in ways that are not disruptive. Assata Shakur said “no one will give you the education you need to overthrow them,” and no one will give you the certification you need to build a new world order that isn’t based in violence and exploitation.

But change happens slowly, and some of the most transformative acts we do in our lives are accumulations of mundane and immeasurable things. The way our ideas of success are oriented around a capitalist logic of productivity and quantity then can make us feel like failures if we do not live up to those standards. However, the small and big interventions we make into the status quo, into shattering what is “normal,” are rarely recognized by such a logic. They manifest themselves in less tangible, less visible ways. It is not measured in grades, in awards, in formal recognitions. It is felt in passing moments and in a shifting atmosphere and in the spaces where your imprint is felt. There is a special kind of value in an invisible impact; it can’t be captured, taken away or reversed. It exists in the conversations we have with each other, in the glimpses of change we hear in each other’s hopeful voices.

I want to think about success not in terms of what is gained, but what is lost. The most revolutionary kind of education compels you not to learn, but to unlearn — to unlearn everything we took for granted. This country wasn’t founded on values of freedom. Diversity does not solve racial injustice. Colonialism is not over. Shedding layers and layers of what we have taken as simple truth is part of a transformative education. But its not one that can necessarily be measured through grades. Its a shattered worldview that becomes a part of us, one we have to reconstruct on our own.

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