Success Isn't A Bad Idea (A Polite Response to Hank Green)

In a recent vlogbrothers video, Hank Green tries valiantly to tackle the big question of “what is success?”   He does this because he is often congratulated on being a success, and wants to unpack the idea. Here's a link to the video, which I highly recommend watching.  In fact, I highly recommend the entire vlogbrothers channel. 


He takes as good a shot at it as I think you can in a four minute video, but I also think he misses the point.

He quickly equates success and fame.  It’s not unfair – in an increasingly connected, increasingly digital world, at least some degree of fame is a requirement for success for content creators, artists, vloggers, authors and the like.  But it’s not a measure of success in its own right.

(As a quick aside I think Bill Waterson is a great example of this.   Yes, he’s famous, but he doesn’t crave that fame at all.  His fame, in and of itself, does not contribute to his life’s happiness.)

Hank wonders aloud, “What does the word success mean to the person asking ‘what is it like to be a success?’” and further wonders if perhaps success is defined as being “richer or more powerful than most people.”   Oddly, the answer is “yes,” but for a reason Hank misses entirely.

Most people, if you prod them, define success simply as, having enough so that they can do what they want to with their lives.  Having so much that you have true freedom in your life would surely make you more wealthy and powerful than most people on the planet, but the joy of having that isn’t because most people don’t.

I’ve got a lot going for me.  I’m a middle class, college educated, white male living in Canada.   I have a roof over my head, enough food to eat, and a stable internet connection. I’m already way ahead of the global average in terms of what I have in my life.

But there’s a problem.  I still go to bed at night wondering how the bills are going to get paid.  I wonder if my kid will be able to afford to go to college, or if I’ll be able to help him with that.   I wonder how much to spend on my wife’s birthday presents, and choose a number far more modest than I’d like.  I’ve needed new shoes for at least six months now, but I haven’t bought them, because groceries and diapers and the electric bill are all more important, so this simple thing – new shoes – goes neglected.  I go to sleep each night wondering what will happen if I lose my job, or if one of us gets sick.

So, when the average person asks, “Hank, what’s it like to be a success?” what they’re really asking is, “what’s it like to be able to spend your time doing what you love, instead of trading your time away to be able to afford meet your needs?  What’s it like to fall asleep at night with the security that if something unexpected happens, your finances won’t crumble?  In short: What’s it like to have enough?

Because most people in this world don’t.

This isn’t a criticism of you, Hank Green.  I think you’re a fantastic guy and you do amazing things with the success you have.  You make the world a better place and do it all with a sense of wonder and passion.

But when that’s what people ask you what it’s like to be a success, that’s what they wonder about.