There is a dilemma in trying to appraise some one's else's success or failure. The most workable definition of success is “achieving what you set out to do”. But to assess that you need to understand what someone wants and values. People who never reach a certain level of material comfort might still seem themselves as successful because they’ve set out to live an adventurous life instead. So it's impossible to talk about success or failure from anything but the perspectives of the people themselves. But some individuals do find that the successes they yearn for continue to elude them.
When a person's efforts to achieve what he or she desires time after time, it’s often because there’s a conflict raging between what they’re working toward and another need - one that they may not even be aware of. We’re complex creatures and can have competing goals and desires. To make matters worse, some lie beneath the surface out of view.
These conflicts are most likely to create patterns of failure when the sides are evenly matched. The person is continually pulled in two directions, each stepping in to sabotage the other’s efforts. Trying to ignore the voice of opposition may eat away at someone’s self-confidence because they can still sense that something isn’t quite right. But abandoning the goals altogether can bring feelings of guilt and self-rebuke. This clearly makes success harder to achieve. But it can also turn failure into a lesser evil because in some ways, trying but failing is the only way to keep them all quiet.
One of the most obvious conflicts is between what somebody thinks they ought to do versus what really suits them. Professionally, it can be a student who feels obliged to study medicine but actually craves the cut-and thrust of business. Others can fall short of their dreams because they believe they should do everything themselves and without help.
Ambivalence can also come from negative beliefs about success. An individual who often fails may on some level worry that success will change them or their lives for the worse. They might imagine themselves being the targets of envy or hounded by predators. It could carry visions of tremendous burdens and responsibilities, or losing less-successful friends along the way. We think we’re a society that encourages success, but our films and literature are also full of high-achieving villains like mercenary tycoons and snobbish socialites. People can and do worry that material success might turn them into one of these creatures, and that they would stop being part of “us” and become one of “them”.
Social research suggests a link between outward success and a personality trait called “conscientiousness”. Conscientiousness brings together factors such as responsibility, commitment, determination and self-discipline. At the other end of the spectrum are traits like flexibility, spontaneity and freedom. People far over to the spontaneous side don’t always achieve as much as their conscientious cousins, but they might not view it as failure because they don’t WANT to sacrifice their freedom. There are, however, people who continually fail and are extremely frustrated by it. Some of these individuals fail because they’re too exacting about how success should reach them.
People who suffer a constant series of setbacks can do so because they have very narrow or romanticised view of what it takes to succeed – and a long list of things they feel they shouldn’t have to do. They put too much faith in destiny and the Big Break. At work, they’re often knocked back because they ignore entry-level positions and apply for jobs beyond their training and experience. On the romantic front, they can wait home patiently night after night because true love should find THEM. These are Cinderella stories gone wrong; the fairy godmother never arrives, Lana Turner goes home from the drugstore undiscovered and the talented understudy stays in the back row of the chorus line.
Success and failure don’t live in a vacuum. It’s impossible to talk about either of them without knowing WHAT you’re trying to do or failing to achieve, and this is usually where the problem lies. When success is too elusive, the real failure is often not working WITH ourselves – being aware of what we really want, where our talents lie and what will make us truly happy.