14 November 2019



We discussed “what is success?” in 2015* and reading my essay again there is very little I would like to change. I still accept that there are two types of successes: (1) self set objectives and criteria to achieve such objectives and (2) socially set objectives and their criteria for success.  And more importantly socially set criteria are open to abuse and exploitation of people.

In this essay I want to briefly discuss three issues: how can assumptions we make in life affect our success? How does cheating affect success? And is success an amoral phenomenon?

There is no doubt that assumptions play a very important and key role in our lives. We start making assumptions from the minute we wake up till the time we go to sleep. What matters for our discussion are the assumptions we make in the context of our success. Unjustified self confidence, arrogance and hubris are mind sets and behaviours many people believe won’t affect their chances of success.

Indeed, one of the most important assumptions is the epistemological trap that is: if we are confident, and maybe even know, what it takes to achieve certain goals then we can achieve our objective unless some calamity befalls us.

Firstly we might think we know what it takes to achieve our objectives but maybe our knowledge is out of date, never mind misrepresenting reality. And more importantly, others might thwart our efforts either by accident or design. We should never underestimate the ability of others to thwart our efforts.

Cheating by us and others affect us in a number of ways. As I said in my previous essay, cheating is a decisive factor in the outcome of a success or not. One of the earliest instances of cheating in our lives is at school and university during exam time. I would argue that one of the problems with this form of cheating is that the educational system is not really geared at teaching how to learn but rather instructing to remember. This adds pressure on students to remember for the short term, but there are many reasons why someone might have issues remembering something in the short term such as an illness, diet, stress and so on.

Memory per se is not a measure of what we know. Knowing that we know is a more powerful state of mind than an ability to remember. Knowing that we know means that we have the ability and motivation to remind ourselves what we know and we know what it is that we know. Remembering, if you like, is just a memory of the syntax, maybe even semantics, of the knowledge in question. Knowing the said knowledge means ability to apply correctly said knowledge in the correct context.

Thus one of the motivations to cheat is that our success is dependent on conditions in a context that lend themselves to cheating. Basically, the system itself might lead us to cheat. But cheating to pass an exam or a meeting or even a sport does not necessarily mean one is proficient in that activity. Indeed, there are some subjects that one can cheat as much as one likes to “succeed” but one can never bluff one’s way to demonstrate one’s knowledge. Learning a second language is a very strong example of this point; people will just know whether you know the target language or not. Skiing and mountaineering might be relevant sports.

But in general cheating by others distorts the standards and criteria for success for everyone else. Those who do not cheat will be at a disadvantage because the information they have for success is based on a falsity: i.e. the epistemological trap I mentioned above.

My third and final point is the question of whether success is an amoral activity or phenomenon. If one cheats at exams and not discovered then one has achieved one’s objectives i.e. pass the exam. Sure, we might say that it is immoral and unethical behaviour which of course it is. But with a little help from the system the object was to pass the exam and not to be a moral person. We assumed that sitting for an exam would also elicit a moral behaviour. By the same token we might want to collect money for the poor and people contributed enough money to achieve our objective and hence our success. Sure, we might legitimately argue that this is a moral activity. But the issue is that the criteria (achieve objective = success) of success can apply to any objective whether it is good, bad or indifferent.

Does this mean that one’s success is nothing more than just a functional process of setting objectives and achieving them? Does success mean that passing exams or winning an Oscar is no more special than ordering a hamburger with chips?

*What is success?

Best Lawrence

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