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John Brueggeman Trish Lyell ’81

Tim Harper Linda Simon

Caroline D’Abate ’93

art that was “the most astonishing senior-thesis project I’d ever seen.” She still finds occasion to cite his case “as a reminder that what’s problematic in the short term can be very valuable in the long term.”

Many people look outside themselves to interpret success, but some don’t need to look far. Both William James and Coco Chanel, the biography subjects of English professor Linda Simon, “defined success according to a small circle of people who mattered to them,” she says. “Their larger marketplace suc- cess was secondary to the esteem of those whose opinion they valued.” Her research on James highlighted “the importance he placed on ‘recognition,’ the feeling that he was seen and under- stood by people he respected”—from the woman he loved to fa- mous philosophers he met. And Simon says Gertrude Stein wor- ried that the fame brought by her success “would change her sense of self and inhibit her creativity. So that was a case where public success was considered with suspicion by someone who craved an audience.” When the publication of Simon’s Chanel biography earned her an invitation to blog with the Huffington Post, she relates, “I was pleased because at least I’d heard of it, but then the item got picked up and reposted on all sorts of fashion sites and other blogs. Did I feel successful because it got all those other readers? I’m not sure how to evaluate those sites, so they didn’t mean much to me, but I know that wide exposure on them does mean success to some people.” She muses, “There are many worlds we don’t know about, and success is seen differently in dif- ferent worlds.”


Even market success varies in various worlds of business, notes Caroline Orr D’Abate ’93, a faculty member in manage- ment and business. “Some organizations are top-down, defining success for their employees. Others are bottom-up, where the culture is created by its employees, who therefore influence the meaning of success in their organization.” While she acknowl- edges that even nonprofits must show a successful budget bal- ance to their stakeholders, she’s interested in data demonstrating that “companies who count their benefits to their communi- ties as measures of their success, along with their profits, can actually outper- form other businesses financially. So business success doesn’t have to be one-dimensional.”

D’Abate and Brueggemann point out that success is inextric - ably culturally bound—for example, some nations or religions value group achievement over individual, and some value mate- rial wealth more or less highly than others. But Lyell is curious about the earliest, almost presocietal humans: “What does it mean that prehistoric tools have decorations? With no church or state to do it for, early artists made art. Their goal wasn’t just an efficient tool, but also beauty, for which there may have been no external reward.” Simon hazards, “I think they wanted to ex- press their individuality and show it to others. It’s like publish- ing on the Internet: you want to reach an audience.” When it comes to children, conveying and filtering ideas of success can cause considerable parental angst. D’Abate says, “Yes, I want to challenge my kids and expect the best from them. But they don’t have to be all-A stu- dents or top athletes; the way my husband and I look at it, they have to try their best, show kindness to others… What matters is being happy with themselves, not just being successful to some external criterion.” Brueggemann says, “My third-grader sees which classmate is in which reading corner or math group. She has a keen sense of how the kids rank in how ‘smart’ they are.” He adds, “We’re always trying to talk her down from that.” And D’Abate agrees it’s a challenge, not to mention potentially confusing, to instill more personal notions of success in children who live with externally delineated stan- dards every weekday. Lyell recalls that her much older siblings “had a different standard of success than I did, because my parents’ ideas changed over time.” She watched her father quit his job be- cause he was unhappy, though he was considered successful. He subsequently “made less money but did get happier.” What makes Tim Harper happy outside of his work is helping young- sters and others less fortunate than him: “Facilitating success for an individual facing highly challenging issues in life is ulti- mately very rewarding.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Join the colloquy by e-mailing or writing to Scope magazine, Skidmore College.

In the end, for D’Abate, as for many, success translates as balance. She says, “Balancing work with family, balancing my passions with those of my students and col- leagues, balancing the expectations of oth- ers with my own expectations for myself— the days I feel most successful are the days I feel balance across all realms of my life.”



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