Defining Success in the Age of Self-Promotion

Recently, I came across David Zweig’s new book, “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in An Age of Relentless Self-Promotion” (http://www.invisiblesbook.com). I was intrigued by the book’s exploration of how we view concepts like status and success in today’s world. Zweig writes about the lives of men and women operating behind the scenes to make our world run. They are scientists, engineers, craftsmen, etc. quietly doing their work and shunning the spotlight. He makes clear that the people he’s writing about all share a passion for their work, yet they don’t gain fulfillment from public recognition but rather from the work itself.

At the same time I encountered Zweig’s book, there was a very troubling story in my Facebook newsfeed about a mother, Lacey Spears, who is suspected of murdering her 5-year-old son by giving him a fatal dose of sodium. The mother had been blogging about her son’s various aliments for years and gaining a sizable following as a result. Police now suspect that she is responsible for causing those ailments and the ultimate death of her son. Her motive, police believe, was to gain more attention from her readers 

I see these two stories as related in the way they highlight a growing trend in our culture to equate fame with success. Many of us are now expected to use social media to promote our work and ourselves. The branding of individuals is becoming commonplace. The number of “Likes” on a Facebook post can make us feel gratified, popular, and relevant. Everyone wants to be a mini-celebrity. It all feels terribly narcissistic and artificial (and in the case of Lacey Spears, pathological).

David Zweig’s profiling of ‘invisible’ workers offers a different, perhaps saner, way of viewing success which is based on measures of personal meaning and expression of one’s competencies. There’s this implication that ‘work is its own reward’, but I would add “Purposeful work is its own reward.” Of course, defining that purpose is up to the individual.

In an article in Wired magazine, Evan Selinger frames the problem in a way that resonates with my work as a Parent Coach:

“The digital age version of the proverbial tree falling in the woods question is: Does something exist if it hasn’t been liked, favorited, linked to, or re-tweeted? According to many tech critics, the tragic answer is no. Like Lady Gaga, we live for the applause. But if constantly chasing other people’s approval is a shallow way to live that leads to time and energy being wasted over pleasing others and recurring feelings of insecurity and emptiness, how can we course correct?”


I talk to many parents who struggle to define for themselves and their families what truly matters to them. Many parents are caught up in the “success = status” myth perpetuated by our culture. In my coaching, I try to help parents clarify what their ultimate purpose is based on their own beliefs, values, and intelligences. I believe our children also suffer from a sort of ‘purposelessness’ when they link their self-worth to how many Facebook likes they can get.

I have witnessed that parents with a strong sense of self-identity are better equipped with the skills and capacities to define success on their own terms. They know what truly matters to them. They contribute their gifts from a place of authenticity rather than attention-seeking. These types of parents serve as powerful models for children. But there are also actions and attitudes that they can apply to their parenting to nurture a child’s healthy self-identity. It begins by allowing their child’s unique talents, strengths, interests, and intelligences to have full expression within the family. Some simple ways to do that are by taking time to notice and appreciate their child’s creativity; approaching their child with curiosity about their ideas and feelings; allowing their child to make age-appropriate choices with autonomy; and encouraging their child to look within for answers. In so many little ways, we as parents can help our children discover what their unique contribution to the world might look like.

With this baby step, we might start to course correct toward deeper, more mature and personalized definitions of success.

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