Defining the terms of ‘Success’

Graduates dream big, but not for yourself …. As an applicant from one of the most deprived areas in Kenya, the clean sweep of As, a plethora of extra-curricular and volunteer activities, and the dual titles of democratically elected class reps and academically selected student made references laden with words like ‘struggle’ and ‘deprived’ the cherry on top of a successful application to Egerton University, aged 18. The first of my family to begin university, I was reared on the aspiration and ambition from Tom Mboya to PLO Lumumba—work hard enough, and you’ll get all the success you deserve.

Aspiration, ambition, success, dreams, career: words which at 18, held all the promise for a future waiting to be built.

Now, they stick in my throat like naive vulgarities, corrupted and shot through with the ‘me first’ culture of our society.

As a graduating student, I have seen hordes of friends and acquaintances turn from philanthropic visions to orient instead to the money-making machines of corporations and finance. Friends who opted into the facile and repetitive manoeuvrings of the grind, and out of the blueprints of dreams they had been daubing and drafting since childhood.

But to say that students should instead simply ‘follow their dreams’ is a miscalculated address to the struggle facing every graduate and young person today in our increasingly chaotic world, whether they’re renewing their contract at NYS , or working night shifts in service to afford creative pursuits.

To ‘follow your dreams’ is now a cliché of a cliché, rolling off the tongue like some overplayed radio hit. So easy to rally around, but what does it actually mean? What if those dreams bubbled to boiling point in the very primordial soup of capitalist hegemony, where the only clothes we can afford are made in sweat shops and the only food we can afford were plucked from the hands of an exploited farmer?

A world stagnant with inequality presents each of us with widely diverging access to ‘dreams’; while the system works impeccably smoothly for a few, the labyrinth of ‘opportunity’ is a blind navigation for most. We must divorce ourselves from the dangerous fable that hard work alone achieves dreams, and not the connections, identity or charisma we happen to luck into. ‘Following dreams’ is implicitly privileged.

More importantly, to pretend that the majority of us have complete agency in what we worship eludes the reality of our society, which chases a carrot of success defined by wealth and prestige, and where competition and inequality are the foundational blocks of aspiration. To counteract the gravitational pull of accoutrements of distinction is to reject a lifetime of cultured instinct. Very few have the privilege of recognising this myth, and even fewer have the capacity to actualise the necessary changes.

Even the phrase ‘follow your dreams’ positions the individual and the will for their own desires as sacrosanct, with no footnote on which dreams qualify, and who we can pass over to get there. Isn’t this exact ideology what got us in this mess in the first place, where a few self-serving people decide their dreams are worth the sacrifices of others?

The pathogenic combination of all three; inequality, capitalism and a voracious individualism; turns the innocently uttered advice to simply ‘follow your dreams’ into the signifier carrier of a deadly signified.

As a new student, I experienced this plot twist as the most gut-wrenching dupe. What path do you follow when they all seem steeped in the fallout of entrenched neoliberalism—even the alma mater which granted me so many opportunities funded me with fossil fuel investments.
Oscillating between disgust and awe at my teenage self’s thirst for recognition defined by someone else’s approval and someone else’s success, I worry for my wee brothers and the path they already gracefully tracing. When invited to address pupils at my old high school about ‘success’, I realise that I too am an accessory to the abhorrent myth that accolades and jobs are ends in themselves; the sum total of our value as human beings. And the fetishisation of stories such as mine, where an individual did in fact luck out, only serves to legitimise the inequality inherent in the system—they did it, so why can’t you? Try harder.

We need to radically restructure our society in order to remedy the gross injustice of children sentenced to inadequacy either because they will never have the system in the palm of their hand, or because they believe that the transcendental powers of ‘education’ will give them the dreams they so deserve. And we must begin today by actively stripping back our understanding of ‘success’, and reframing it as something we achieve together.

What if we told our children that wellbeing and happiness were worth aspiring to, or that love was the most valuable thing we have? Imagine a society where children aren’t faced with the abstract quotas teachers are increasingly forced to implement, and instead are nurtured by a recognition that grades are only one part of a healthy mind. And what if we really radicalised our maxims, and taught our children that their dreams should respond to the needs of our planet.

Aspire to global equality. Ambitiously fight for your communities. Achieve the dream of being loved and loving another wholly and relentlessly. Opt out of their definitions of ‘success’ and opt in to being alive and human and free. And struggle every day to reject the insult that you are only as important as the career you choose to pursue. You are more than the conglomerate parts of your CV, but there’s a big old world waiting to be fixed, and it’s time we put that first.


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