A good first question as we rethink success is: success for whom?
In what framework do we define success or what would be successful?
In our Western individual society that is usually me, myself and I.
The individual success or the success of the individual company or nation winning out over others.
A dominant kind of success.
So the set of values within which the question is asked seems focused at some part of the whole, a fragment of the whole.
I just returned from a complex systems scientists conference in Stockholm who basically said the world is heading for catastrophe we are going to collapse, and then asking how can complex system science help us navigate through the challenges ahead?
A wonderful example is the 2008 financial crisis because economists and investment managers had found very effective ways of measuring the risk of each financial instrument that they were
investing in, each derivative product etc, but nobody thought about the success of the overall system and when the knock-on effects of weaknesses in one place started, the whole thing collapsed because nobody had looked at the success of the whole system. Each one was trying to maximize their own success in specific areas and not acknowledging that they were part of a larger whole.
So when we look at the issue of rethinking success what good is success for an individual if the result is everybody else dying off and as a consequence, the individual too eventually dying off?
In ecology we have the concepts of overshoot and collapse : the flour beetles are a good example as they very successfully eat more and more flour and reproduce more and more, until suddenly they’ve eaten up all the flour then they all starve to death. So short-term success led to long term failure.
Perhaps more extreme but visually engaging is the example of somebody who’s just jumped off a hundred storey building, looking around and saying “oh my the view is so beautiful I’m really enjoying this” but not thinking about the landing when they get down the hundred floors to the ground.
I think very often that is what is wrong with definitions of success today: they’re always partial and they’re not asking about the behaviour of the overall system.
From system science we look at the complex interactions and relationships of all the parts of the system and seek how do you achieve some dynamic balance among all of them
System have emerging properties that happen beyond what you might predict looking at any individual part of the system.
At that conference, most of the scientists there were also open to the spiritual dimension and I ended up sharing with a lot of people about the Baha’i approach to things which seemed to respond to some of their questions. For example the Baha’i faith offers a systems approach to religion.
Its concept of unity in diversity is all about observing systems cooperation and reciprocity, our systems characteristics. Solidarity, with each individual being a trust of the whole.
All of these are systems ways of looking at all of humanity and how it fits in the natural world.
Another example came from COP25 in Madrid where we saw how each country defending its self-interest made it very difficult to come up with a solution satisfactory to the whole. Too few there were looking at the common global interest or they’re always having to balance what they think might pass at home, what will be politically possible or not possible or following the vested interests of influential lobbies.
They are measuring images of success in those narrower terms and ignoring what it means for the consequences for the whole.
Another dimension of success: timeframe
Another dimension when thinking about success is the timeframe: in businesses it’s the quarterly or annual financial report that judges how you’re doing relative to the previous quarter.
It’s a very very short where you wonder how often do people think about the future of the company?
When looking at past market leaders such as Westinghouse, Kodak or Pan Am, because they didn’t innovate, they perhaps were poorly managed, but most importantly they were not planning long enough in the future, too comfortable in their past dominant position, suddenly they were left behind when it became to late to take any corrective action and went extinct like the dinosaurs.
So we really do need measure the timeframe for when do you determine whether or not you’re successful.
Of course success is not something you achieve and have and then have it forever after; it’s a dynamic question of balance, how long have you kept your balance and how long have you continued to progress?
If you look at the Baha’i perspective you are looking at timeframes of a dispensation of a thousand years cycles; so if we were to look at sustainability in that time context, we would really be laying the foundation for a civilization that will prosper long in the future.
Perhaps we need to think of success that at least stretches beyond the extremely short term that is the common framework that most people use today.
Another dimension of the Baha’i approach to rethinking success is really acknowledging that what good is success to you as an individual if everybody else around you is failing?
Shouldn’t success mean collective success we all need this to be successful together or we will all be failing together.
So a company that looks at individual and short term success in terms of pure growth without looking for innovative ways to rein in production of greenhouse gases will no longer have a client as both the reputation and the practical climate consequences will have left it without people who will want to buy / consumer their production.
So we really need to explore how to look at planetary success, we really need to succeed on this planet has we’ve reached planetary boundaries, overshooting many of them upsetting the balance of natural systems.
How can we bring our impacts back into balance with planetary limits or rethink the systems behind them so the success is not how many more plastic packages have you sold but can you find alternative packaging that can be recycled or become part of the closed cycles of a circular economy.
So how can we find the right measures of success beyond simply GDP or other economic measures which fail to measure success but drive the system regardless whether it’s constructive or destructive.
So let’s start to think about how to take a systems approach to this idea of success recognizing that success is a dynamic process, that success is really achieving balance, a balance of the necessary material needs we all have whilst also aiming for uplifting spiritual nourishment.
How do we consider success as a set of processes going ahead where hopefully we will instead of diverging towards catastrophe, be converging towards a more sustainable society both in material and spiritual terms?