The myth of inevitable success

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For the second time, I recently watched a BBC4 documentary about John Cooper Clarke (BBC4 documentaries are great, by the way – especially music-related ones). Cooper Clarke has become widely recognised, acclaimed and loved for his work at the intersecting fringes of poetry, punk and stand-up. He has carved out a singular place in each of those fields despite there being absolutely no precedent for what does, and when watching the documentary you quickly begin to see why. He’s incredibly witty, incisive and obviously talented. Hard-working too.

But the whole thing got me thinking about the implied inevitability of success that’s inherent in threading his story into a narrative. “Of course he’s successful, he did X, Y and Z and he’s talented, smart and hard-working. It’s inevitable”.

John Cooper Clarke is the last person whose success you’d assert was inevitable. One of the things that makes his work even more compelling is the fact that it probably shouldn’t be successful at all. But it is. And once you tell the story of his success, how one thing led to another and another until a (justifiably) celebratory documentary was made, it all falls into place and feels predetermined. This by-product of storytelling applies to most other tales of success I can think of, from Steve Jobs to Arnold Schwarzenegger, too.

The mythic effect that’s created by giving things a narrative makes them feel inevitable when in reality they never were: they could just as easily be complete failures you’d never heard of. This in itself is merely a side-effect of storytelling; a kind of nostalgia, and as such is pretty harmless.

But a problem starts when this compulsion to construct narrative to stitch events together expands to the present day and unfolding incidents whose relationships are still being uncovered. I’ve recently caught myself applying the same kind of narrative filter on my friends’ various successes in real-time rather than retrospectively and it’s having some adverse effects.

When tracing friends and co-workers’ successes, new jobs, marriages, travel, gig-going and general Facebook FOMO fodder, I have found myself thinking ‘of course’. Of course they’re getting married, getting better paid and more interesting jobs, travelling and all the things I’m currently not doing. They’ve done one thing, then another and now they’re happy and enjoying the fruits of their carefully planned route. As a comparative exercise, this is entirely unproductive as I have done many of the things I end up being envious of. My problem starts, faced with everything as a Facebook timeline, when these disparate events start to look less like a series of unconnected experiences and more the story of someone’s life; a real-time biography.

When faced with the narrative of people’s lives, my own inevitably withers by comparison as I don’t connect achievements and events in my head in the same chronological and concrete way as a biographer or software algorithm does. Cue a spiral of self-loathing, feelings of underachievement and in my case debilitating apathy. I suspect my shame spiral says more about me than anything, but I’m convinced it’s the trend towards deliberate, firm connection of unrelated events that’s causing it.

The same phenomenon extends to news coverage, with 24 hour rolling news covering horrific and unpredictable events with the cold knowledge that (for example) the gunman was a loner, posted angry screeds on obscure web forums and dabbled in the occult. So of course he/she went and killed a dozen innocent people on a weekday morning.

This seems to be a potentially dangerous lens through which to view current affairs. There is no ‘of course’. For something to be of [a] course, it implies a series of events or obstacles with a defined or predictable order. Most of what makes it onto the news is pretty unpredictable and impossibly unpreventable, so it seems unhelpful to report it as inevitable.

Once recognised as a construction, though, the myth of inevitable success can lead to a lot less angst in the randomness of things. In reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘Jobs’, I’ve found it much more comforting to think that Steve Jobs had absolutely no idea what he was doing most of the time rather than leading an inspirational life where his drive and passion led (inevitably) to creating the wealthiest company in the world. The episodes of his life seem fairly haywire to me, and as far as I can tell he never had what anyone would consider a master plan.

So when looking at people’s stories, there’s pretty much only one thing that remains constant throughout every event in their lives: the person. Their personality, ideas and approach to things is what carries them through from one thing to another. No overwhelming control over their lives or great master plan. Which again, is quite a comforting thought.

As Anthony Burrill has advised, ‘Work hard and be nice to people’ – it’s probably the best chance anyone’s got.

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