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AS A CONCEPT, success is an octopus—a slippery, changeable tangle that can conform to most any little niche and escape most any container. For an hour or two recently, some Skid- more professors had hold of one tentacle at least: the notion of measures of success for various societies and individuals. Here is some of their conversation, in hopes it may inspire others to do a little cognitive wrangling of their own.

The very notion of measuring success raises some concerns for sociologist John Brueggemann, author of Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America. He argues that in Western cul- ture, as the scientific method took hold around the 17th centu- ry, and then with industrialization in the 19th, “the default way of evaluating everything became more and more about measur- ing,” from formulas to cost-benefit analyses to bottom lines. But another approach is through narrative. He says, “Numbers are seen as objective and provable, yet sometimes it’s more relevant for people to consider the way their experi- ence fits into a more qualitative, narrative explanation of what success means.” His book describes how the values of

modern capitalist market culture—efficiency and productivity, acquisition and consumption—have spilled into other aspects of American life. As our market economy has become a “market so- ciety,” he maintains, the reduction of “success” to working hard and consuming a lot has made many Americans distinctly

unsuccessful at meaningful social relationships and a fulfilling life. Social institutions that had served as a counterbalance to market forces—such as government, education, organ- ized labor, and the media—have succumbed to the ever- spreading market culture, he says, so that their meanings of success also revolve around bottom lines and market share. Yet people are still human, and “part of the human condition is trying to become attached to something broader or more enduring than yourself—the gods, clan, community…” Today, he observes, Americans have less time

and place for



those communal, belonging-centered functions, because we’re working so much in pursuit of individual material gains. For Tim Harper, in management and business, personal suc- cess is about the social imperatives Brueggemann describes. Harper defines it for himself as “having a positive impact on others.” As department chair, for instance, “I aim to find inno- vations that will allow faculty to experience a higher quality of work life.” And in his “Social Identity in the Workplace” course, he felt successful when he saw his students’ success in “hon- estly, openly engaging in sensitive, risky discussions to deepen their understandings of other people’s viewpoints.” Artist Trish Lyell ’81 offers a different

student story. Several years ago, she had a student in her arts foundations course “who was smart as hell,” she recalls, “but whose skill set for that course, which requires learning to draw from still-life setups, was weak and stayed weak. You couldn’t recognize his work as the result of the same exercise the other students completed. By any usual standard for this course, his work was horrible. But his observation was that the other draw- ings looked alike and his didn’t resemble anyone else’s.” And on some level Lyell saw that value too. She explained that his grade would reflect his trouble learning to render and that he’d likely have difficulty going to the next level in drawing, but, she says, “I was hesitant to ‘force’ him to conform and suppress his quirky way of seeing.” In his case, she says, “I wasn’t worried about his success with a grade, because I knew he’d have a successful life. He was a very successful thinker; he was just mismatched for that course.” That student went on to major in both art and music, and Lyell will never forget his final project, an interactive work of sound and visual


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