Let’s Talk: The Definition of Success

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By Venkatesan Ranjana (23A01D)

There is undoubtedly a voice within you preaching that ten years from now, you should be on a perfect trajectory to becoming the top in your field, attaining widespread recognition and numerous accolades. What is worth examining for many of us is whether there is another voice—which may be slightly quieter, or raving more loudly—that questions the first.

That first voice represents what we can refer to as the typical Rafflesian path of success, in which the only definition of success deemed acceptable is three-fold: regard, position, and service.  

While they are in no way inherently dishonourable pursuits (is your first instinct really to turn your nose up at the notion of these goals?), this definition also has the unfortunate side effect of making it very difficult for many of us to define success on our own terms. 

But before we go into that, let’s linger a little on the standard definition of success. 

‘The Pursuit of Excellence’

For many, this definition is far too entrenched in our school culture, with the pursuit of excellence we champion in the spheres of academics, extracurriculars, and community service. 

The widely accepted ‘standard’ of what a Rafflesian must achieve in terms of grades requires little explanation—that elusive 90 RP target worms its way into the core of your thinking, one way or another, and whether you’d like it to or not. 

But perhaps the areas in which the prominence of this standard definition of success can be seen are our CCA and community service culture. We are, after all, a school that invites talent and celebrates the highest degrees of it in every field possible. Even when students engage in pursuits beyond the academic realm, we are constantly reminded of the need to succeed in order to receive support and approval. 

A clear-cut example of how this manifests is our approach to match support; beyond concerns about logistics and cost, the clear messaging it creates is that our community is only willing to extend our encouragement and acknowledgement to those who reach the pinnacle of whatever journey they set out on, as opposed to making match support more available to preliminary matches or smaller-scale competitions. Even in Press, we are not exempt from such thinking: while many of our reporters are sent to cover various finals, sports that don’t make it that far rarely receive coverage.

While it is admirable that so many of our schoolmates strive towards indisputable dominance in the field of their chosen sport, art, or other co-curricular pursuits, the underlying darkness of this culture is the expectation for them to handle the weight of their impending achievements, or at least pretend to do so, effortlessly. 

It is this sort of peer that we typically label as ‘bound for success’, because they are already pros at bearing the burden of striving for excellence in everything they do. While they can motivate us to do better, the detrimental effects of the rat race for university admissions are only exacerbated by the misplaced sense of competition to outdo one another and the resulting psychological toll of feeling incapable of doing so.

Discovering what success means to us

Evidently, then, the Rafflesian definition of success is not something we can take at face value and simply choose not to care about. You might believe you are entirely unaffected by this standard everyone else is striving towards, but its pervasive nature undoubtedly affects our daily lives.

What cannot be ignored is that at our age, school culture inevitably forms a part of our identities. You don’t have to be a Student Council member who lives and breathes the Rafflesian spirit to still be in the thick of it and have it influence the way you think and work. 

And when we internalise this definition of success that is promoted to us, there can be an inner sense of discord. If I asked you now what constitutes success for you, could you give me an answer with conviction?

Having your personal definition of success align with the standard Rafflesian definition is by no means a bad thing, but the issue occurs when the lines are blurred and we either lose sight of what really matters to us, or lose the opportunity to find out as we come of age.

Various dictionaries’ definitions of success

If it’s any assurance, it isn’t just us young adults who struggle with definitions. If you search up the definition of success in any dictionary online, you will find two main variations. The first is an expansion of the Rafflesian definition, which may suggest markers like “wealth, respect or fame” (Merriam-Webster), “high social position” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary), or “the like” (dictionary.com, summing things up nicely).

The second variation is what we’re concerned with: the attainment of one’s desires. And what we desire, even as supposed high-achievers who are capable of excelling in our chosen fields, may not always be found at the peak of the highest mountain. For some of us, it might be found in the smaller cogs of a well-oiled system.

What remains is that the definition of success need not necessarily be broadened, as we might think it needs to be. Rather, it should be narrowed down to the individual. In a culture where we may unthinkingly accept the hold the standard definition has on our lives, it is prudent that we embark on the journey of doubt and uncertainty to ascertain what really matters to us.

Undergoing this experience of figuring out our personal definitions of success and holding onto them is preferable to spending ten or twenty years working towards someone else’s idea of success, only to realise it doesn’t fulfil our own desires. 

By taking the time to understand ourselves and what we truly want, to separate our goals from the expectations that we unwittingly impose onto ourselves, we might just be able to create a path that allows us to fulfil whatever we’re truly meant to, and do right by ourselves.

Whether your goals comprise fame, wealth and regard, or contentment, peace and smaller achievements, or some combination of virtues that makes little sense to anybody but yourself, they are yours. 

To have them in sight, to understand what is yours and what is everyone else’s may very well be one of our saving graces during difficult times to come. The very notion of becoming an adult is terrifying (does anyone ever want to make decisions of such weight?) but there is a certain kind of solace in knowing that we might be able to make decisions about our lives with greater clarity and justice to ourselves. 

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