Down With Success

Last week, I was one of the lucky students who got to see Conan O’Brien '85 in conversation with University President Drew G. Faust, a shining example of one of the many visits Harvard receives each semester from those graduates who it deems successful.

O’Brien discussed his thoughts on the illusion of success. He claimed that he is not the final product of a successful career (despite his late-night fame), reminiscing about the days when he sat where I was sitting, in Sanders Theatre watching a well-known alumnus, and wondering how that person had figured it all out; and perhaps most importantly, he pushed back against the notion of ever having it all figured out.

Through the jokes, tidbits of wisdom, and the student questions that followed the conversation, I took O’Brien’s sentiments to heart and found myself wondering why I had even come to see this event. Why do I (and a larger "we" at the College) contribute to the idea of celebrity and idolize the concept of "success" to the point where we lottery to view those who have achieved it? At a school that is esteemed as a place for successful students to learn from successful faculty—a school that spurs success, that bleeds success—it often feels as though there is immense pressure for us to want to be "successful" and to want it unquestioningly, blindly following those who came before us.

This all, of course, depends on our definition of success. Maybe it means stability, happiness, and freedom. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling construct—we believe we are successful, and therefore are. Maybe "success" is being confident enough to sit back like O’Brien, and suggest that success is a never-ending project.

The scariest prospect is that our definition of success somehow hinges on our being students at Harvard. Too often the Harvard name passes as an indicator of "success," allowing people with its mark to sneak to the top of every pile—hedge fund managers, Supreme Court nominees, the short list for CEOs, first picks for tenure. If we create a societal hierarchy led only by those who come with the Harvard stamp, is that a society we want to live in?


If we draw a causal link between Harvard and "success" we create a wrong, and potentially dangerous, value. "Success" and what we make of it must not rely on that privilege; an institutional label should not impact our idea of what such a grand concept is, and what it can be. We must watch out for how our own actions might play into that pattern. Wouldn’t we prefer our definition of "success" to come from our own standards rather than those of a 380-year-old university with a highly imperfect history?

Moreover, the definition of "success" seems to change with age (I could spell the word “discombobulated” in first grade, but no one pats me on the back for that now), with location, and with prestige. Which is why I find the notion of success—as a predictable ladder, constructed of particular achievements, each judged by a preexisting standard—to be invalid. If we measure our time here, in this one place and at this one time, in terms of "success," we will likely feel unfulfilled upon exit. We can chase success, but will never truly catch up.

Many of us likely felt that our greatest moment of "success" to date was admission to Harvard—the event that leads the way for us to become "Harvard grads." It is a process in which we have little choice, in which there is great randomness, and one that often lacks complete integrity given the injustices of a system in which legacies, donations, and educational inequalities play a part. But everything after admission is (hopefully) a choice: the classes we take, the jobs we find, and the people we pull in to or edge out of our lives. Perhaps the biggest choice we must make is what success means to us, and if "success" is even an idea we want to subscribe to.

Despite all our other choices, our standards for success manage to remain rather stagnant during college. A success story is all too often still defined as one with name recognition, usually with wealth, and often with a Harvard degree. To idolize the "successful" Harvard graduates who come back to have conversations with President Faust on the Sanders Theatre stage is to buy into a narrow idea of what achievement means and to diminish the achievements of those on different paths.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should never lottery for opportunities to see entertaining alumni, but we do need to question why we want to see them; to wonder if we think they are more successful simply for having graduated from here; and especially, to create our own definition of success, or—better yet—nix the term and its connotations altogether.

Shayla B. Partridge '18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Leverett House.