Success Mysticism

Scant hours remain of this troubled 2020. From where I sit, it’s not likely we’ll even see the sun again until 2021. And so in this dimly-lit liminal space between years, I wish you better on the other side. May we all be willing to do the work, on ourselves and for others, to make it so. In the meantime, a brief thought on one small, but meaningful way we can all do better.

Few things make me sadder than the now predictable moment at which a successful person creates a sellable mysticism out of their good luck and privilege.

I find it astonishing how often success creates a 360° blind spot from which the beneficiaries of so many privileges, gifts, and fruits of other peoples’ labor can no longer see reality.

From within their bubble every signal carries confirmation bias. They are smarter, stronger, all-around better than everyone else — a special kind of person. Their success is a tension brew of meritocracy and predestination. Few trapped in such bubbles examine that tension.

This conflict — between messianism and bootstrapism — is the foundation of sellable mysticism.

For sale is the promise that if you do what they do, you’ll be rich and powerful, too. What buyers get is a thick, platitudinous mud that never truly delivers. Because it cannot.

Modern meritocracy has failed because it has only ever been interpreted as an individual phenomenon. It would be true, though not nearly as existentially common as it should be, if we believed it as the destiny of the common good.

So, my new year’s resolution for everyone:

Believe no success myths, nor create them either.

And if you are successful, be honest about how that happened to be so. Acknowledge the privilege and help. It’s there.

— Christopher Butler, Dec 31, 2020, Durham, NC

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