What Is Success?

There was a running debate among those interested in women's rights on whether or not its appropriate for women to choose to have a family. I understand this from four positions: 1) an unreconstructed position that accepts having a family as the norm; 2) a feminist critique that rejects traditional gender roles by not pursuing options like having a family; 3) a position calling itself "post-feminist" that ideologically advocates for going back to traditional roles; and 4) A feminist individualist perspective that acknowledges the history and social roles of women but, in the context of one's own life, decides to pursue what would be considered a "traditional" role, but pursues it imbued with a feminist mindset and with the vantage point of understanding all options and pursuing the one that makes the most sense personally.

The reason I have been thinking about these different perspectives is that I've been considering my own notion of success. This came up, somewhat humorously, in the context of facebook poker, where I decided that I could "beat" the other people at my table and should continue to play. This is an idea of success that relies on pursuing an activity competitively and achieving more than other people in it. I then considered--is this really the way I want to lead my life?

In terms of "we" South Asians (and I speak from a privileged class and as an American background), the notion of success is often a central one in guiding our lives, defining our choices, and, the inherited baggage of our families, and beyond into history. Status (or "shyaman" in bangla) is a key idea, and its pursuit and achievement is one definition of success--to be high up in your community and well-respected. This ties in with notions of economic success, social mobility, pursuit of a "received profession" and other related items, many of which, I believe, stem back to the nature of the British colonial state and the role of South Asians in seeking administrative positions in an economics of scarcity and a politics of discrimination against them.

However, this area has been well covered--can you be an artist, or do you have to become a doctor or an engineer? Is it all right to choose to devote yourself to unpaid labor like raising a family, even at the cost of straying from conceptions of success that you've inherited, and, to varying extents, been indoctrinated with.

What is of more interest to me, though, and relates to my silly facebook poker analogy, is what mindset one uses in moving beyond this. To put it bluntly, what part of your mind and your heart are you cultivating in pursuing a particular attitude? In terms of modes of defining success Is it that different to ambitiously strive to become an extraordinary author or artist, making compromises along the way that are inevitably necessary, as to ambitiously strive to pursue a goal that is more "traditional" (doctor, lawyer, engineer....now "computer")?

I think the worth of the pursuit of goals through the same mechanisms of competition, achievement, and striving, regardless of the aim, may not be all that different regardless of the goal. Freeing ourselves--or myself, at least--from that, may be a quality next step to pursue.

The pathbreakers who established different notions of what an acceptable goal is in terms of 'career', that it's okay to be a playwright or a dancer, have done us a service--possibly a great service. But, is that all there is? To truly be liberate one's self, I think a good next step would be the personal definition of sucess--not in the terms of the discourse of striving and other things--but to simply understand that there is one thing of several things that I want to do, that bring me joy, and to simply do them for the purpose of doing them.

I am not going to become a doctor, as had been preordained for me. But what I am going to do, or hope to do in any case, is to consider how the actions and attitudes I have in the process of "work" and activity affect me and what part of my psyche they are feeding. Are they nourishing? Or are they feeding a continuing dynamic of insecurity, striving, and a desire to please, regardless of what the outcome is.

This, to me, is a central question in the current generational conflict among South Asians (of the kind I have described above) that has yet to be fully explored and could benefit from some thinking and, ideally, a multiplicity of personal takes. That seems to be the way toward resolution.

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Doc, You talk of South Asians

Doc,

You talk of South Asians and in soon jump over to Shyaman and the quest for government jobs in the the colonial times being pursued in different ways these days, as among other things, a quest for certain better known jobs. on what grounds to do you assume that this quest was anything but Bengali, that too Bengali Hindu? And what is this strange species South Asian?

That's a reasonable question,

That's a reasonable question, but I think it carries us away from the interesting original point. I'm neither Bengali nor engineer, but I can relate to the insecurity and career-mindedness the Doctor is describing. It's entirely possible that this is a middle-class, upper-caste phenomenon--and tracing how this mindset found its way to a certain group of people could be fascinating--but it's common enough among the people I know who identify as South Asian to become a completely uninteresting trope. How do we make our way out?

Anon II It’s entirely

Anon II It’s entirely possible that this is a middle-class, upper-caste phenomenon–and tracing how this mindset found its way to a certain group of people could be fascinating–but it’s common enough among the people I know who identify as South Asian to become a completely uninteresting trope.

It is entirely possible that this is universal, that is, for members of every community to hold that

the notion of success is often a central one in guiding...lives, defining ...choices, and, the inherited baggage of our families, and beyond into history.

What is interesting is the two or three widely shared notions of success or its definition that cut across groups regardless of their affiliation or self-identification. The drive to achieve, do well, and excel is to be found everywhere. McClelland's pioneering studies of achievement motivation or nAch in India are the stuff of legend. In the phenomenally diverse urban area I live in in the US, almost similar life stories can be found in every group I am acquainted with (three different groups of Caucasions, the Africa-Americans, and of course desis). There is nothing upper-class/caste about the drive to achieve. As an urban commentator in my city puts it beautifilly, the poor are obsessed with the present, the rich with the past, only the middle class thinks abouyt the future. One of the interesting things that have happens in my school district all the time is the constant migration of African-American and now Hispanic families from the inner cities to our inner ring suburb. Almost as if on cue, struggling families move into small and neat homes, get their neighborhood in order, throw out pushers (often violently), and start pushing their kids towards honors classes. It works very well. The criticism of welfare by Shelby Steele is to some extent true (read his touching narrative White Guilt). Welfare does rob communities of the initiative. But at the same time welfare that is targeted in several ways, through a plethora of support programs works very well. As always it is a question of balance as the world's first and still most significant political, economic, and social theorist Chanakya said over 2300 years ago.

To put it bluntly, what part

To put it bluntly, what part of your mind and your heart are you cultivating in pursuing a particular attitude?

Tired of having no money, living a precarious lifestyle where you don't know how you will
feed yourself and pay the rent, irritated that you can't do certain things because of lack of financial resources.

Also,

Is it that different to ambitiously strive to become an extraordinary author or artist, making compromises along the way that are inevitably necessary, as to ambitiously strive to pursue a goal that is more “traditional” (doctor, lawyer, engineer….now “computer”)?

Yes and no, IMO. Some people choose "traditional" careers (especially Desi immigrants) because it is financially rewarding, and that takes care of one preoccupation with money. My parents (who are not doctors or whatever, but neither are they artists, writers, etc), for example, came from an extremely poor background in India, similar to the situation I see most of Nepalis in over here. Yet when they got the opportunity to emigrate to America (they are not the middle class, highly skilled immigrants who were wanted during the 1965 immigration Act), they seized upon that opportunity to somehow live better than they did in India. I don't fault people for thinking that way.

This, to me, is a central question in the current generational conflict among South Asians (of the kind I have described above) that has yet to be fully explored and could benefit from some thinking and, ideally, a multiplicity of personal takes.

I think there is a schism between upper middle class and middle class American Desis who may end up in a profession because of the middle class strings attached, and less well-off Desis who just want to live an existence where they are not fretting over food, etc, or whatever that they were back home, or 2-ger Desis who saw their parents struggle in this country and don't want to end up in that position. This class bias, I think, leads people to assume that every Desi ended up being a doktor or engineer because he/she is privileged, comes from a vanilla neighborhood, etc and overlooks the reasons why some people choose some things for different reasons.

Actually, I have to admit,

Actually, I have to admit, there have been moments I wish I had taken a different career route, especially right now, or worked for a more lucrative org. But no, I have to follow "my passion" and even there, always end up in alternative venues because of "principles," blah blah. But oh well, at least they yield "life experiences," etc. /End self-pitying

Young 2-gers who have yet to go to college (if or when), follow this discussion very carefully....

It’s entirely possible that

It’s entirely possible that this is a middle-class, upper-caste phenomenon–and tracing how this mindset found its way to a certain group of people could be fascinating–but it’s common enough among the people I know who identify as South Asian to become a completely uninteresting trope.

I disagree about the caste middle class thing. Of course, middle class positions DO make a difference, and the majority of American Desis ARE middle class, but I have non Desi friends who came from a lower socio-economic status who were pushed by their working class parents to take a "traditional" job, no matter if you had to take out massive student loans to get your degrees, or whatever. Now, my friends live a middle class lifestyle (but lots of loans). They certainly haven't forgotten where they come from, but they feel like they accomplished something by getting out of the poverty they grew up in and feel that their future family will (hopefully) not have to live the way they did growing up.

and the quest for government

and the quest for government jobs in the the colonial times being pursued in different ways these days, as among other things, a quest for certain better known jobs. on what grounds to do you assume that this quest was anything but Bengali, that too Bengali Hindu?

On the grounds of having read about competition for government jobs one of several factors in:
a) the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka
b) Punjabi-led establishment / Bengali nationalist movement in Pakistan (bureaucracy/civil service)
c) strife over reservation policies in India

The reason, I would argue, has to do with the particular notion of the colonial state in which the Indian industrial capitalist class was largely stifled and not allowed to develop, and your economic prospects came from state patronage....a tradition which continued with statis regimes taking over in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. at independence. Essentially, it has to do with the role of the state in the economy.

As a result, not only is this issue a direct causal factor, but it is intricately tied to seemingly "cultural" issues like the language issue in Sri Lanka or Pakistan (pre-1971) etc. If the state language is one thing, that restricts and privileges access.

I would, however, acknowledge that this is an elite/upwardly mobile resource competition issue first and foremost.

I think there is a schism

I think there is a schism between upper middle class and middle class American Desis who may end up in a profession because of the middle class strings attached, and less well-off Desis who just want to live an existence where they are not fretting over food, etc, or whatever that they were back home, or 2-ger Desis who saw their parents struggle in this country and don’t want to end up in that position.

There, is, I'd agree, a class bias in attitudes, which is wholly unsurprising. But what I find interesting are 1) the way that international migration alters social status in contradictory ways--beyond the typical "I was a doctor in my home country" a la the desi salesworker in The Office and 2) that a lot of people assume that the "drive" to become doctors/lawyers/engineers exists only among the upper class American desis, but I've seen it elsewhere.

And what is this strange species South Asian?

You really had to go there? :) To clarify, I was trying to make clear that I am speaking froma specifically Indian American, raised upper-middle-class background. So of course my notion of what South Asian means is colored by that sociological fact, despite that I have the cognitive dissonance of knowing that that's not the only thing out there.

How do we make our way

How do we make our way out?

Well, here are my thoughts: clarifying our attitudes, cultivating them, which depends in large part on forming a social community of similar minded people (whatever the decision we make about what 'success' is); as DI pointed out, having the resources to make sure we can, and of course personal will, having resources (social, emotional, etc.) to make it through the doubt times :) And all this is in the context of structuring one's choices in the context of an overall economy that doesn't give two shits, except to the extent that it will allow you, minimally, to channel your energies into activities that will serve the economy's interests and might still be sort of appealing to you (thoguh they'll take allt he fun out of it by making it 'work'). So there's that commpromise even after you do all else.

If there is a strong class bias in my post, I would say it is in the complete lack of appreciation of how one's personal socio-economic situation affects one's thinking in the way that one might conceive of how to measure one's well being.

Even today in what used to be

Even today in what used to be a stable sort of economy, in many parts of the US, communities tend to opt for stasis - predictable jobs and career. The large manufacturing sector - now mostly hollowed out in its traditional centers has since moved out to cheaper places - South and South East, and continues to draw people from the Northeast. In these communities aspiring for anything more than the state's premier public university is considered over ambitious. Professions run within families - generation to generation. Breakouts happen when children join the services, see the world, and decide they are going to break out. But there isn't a lot of it that happens.

Good post!

Good post!

It's the great idea of

It's the great idea of success that relies on pursuing an activity competitively and achieving more than other people in it. Nice post!

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