A couple of years ago a small group of clients from China were visiting the office. Over lunch one day they were chatting away amongst themselves in Mandarin (which I don’t speak) when the most senior of them, the usually amiable Mr Li, suddenly turned to me between slices of pizza and snapped “What is success?” I knew he was a Confucian and took his philosophy pretty seriously, and given the cultural differences between us I think he half expected me to answer ‘To make lots more money than the average worker’ or perhaps even ‘To watch lots of porn and then increase the boundaries of the British Empire’. Sometimes a Chinese you know quite well can still be pretty opaque.
The answer I actually gave was ‘Success can only be measured on your own terms, not anyone else’s. It is whatever you decide it to be.’ The Chinese agreed between themselves that this was a very good answer, which was a relief, and went back to finishing lunch. (Incidentally, during the two week visit their preferred foods were very quickly isolated as pizza and curry, and although they ate two hearty, hot meals a day and never seemed to put on any weight, I certainly did.)
I recently had reason to recall Mr Li, and remembering our conversation I made an attempt to define success on my own terms, and this is what I came up with:
I will consider my life to have been a success if my daughters reach adulthood sufficiently open minded to adapt to the inevitable ups and downs that life presents, and educated enough to control the course of whatever career or lifestyle they choose.
I will consider my life to have been a success if I leave behind memories in those around me of having been a loving, supportive and entertaining husband, father and friend.
I will consider my life to have been a success if along the way I have done some things that I consider to be really worth doing: sailing across oceans, owning and driving interesting and exciting cars, expressing myself artistically, seeing some interesting places first hand, and keeping myself informed about and engaged with the world around me.
I will consider my life to have been a success if I achieve these goals without unnecessarily or substantially inconveniencing those around me or harming the environment.
I hope very much to meet Mr Li again, and if I do will try to make the time to compare answers.