Rethinking Success: What key dimensions of success are we failing to address?

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 4. January 2020 - 19:11
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

YouTube video

Rethinking Success: What key dimensions of success are we failing to address?

An ebbf dialogue with Arthur Dahl to ...Rethink Success
YouTube video (51 minutes)
19 December 2019
Edited transcript

We need to take a systems approach to this new idea of success, a dynamic process that should balance material and spiritual.

A good first question as we rethink success is: success for whom?

In what framework do we define success or what would be successful?

In our Western individualist society, that is usually me, myself and I, individual success or the success of the individual company or nation winning out over others, a domination kind of success. So the set of values within which the question is asked seems focused on some part of the whole, only a fragment of the whole.

I just returned from a complex systems science conference in Stockholm (, which basically said that the world is heading for catastrophe and we are going to collapse, and then asked how can complex systems science help us to navigate through the challenges ahead?

A wonderful example is the 2008 financial crisis, because economists and investment managers had found very effective ways of measuring the risk of each financial instrument that they were investing in, each derivative product, etc., but nobody thought about the success of the overall system. When the knock-on effects of weaknesses in one place started, the whole thing collapsed because nobody had looked at the success of the whole system. Each one was trying to maximize their own success in specific areas and not acknowledging that they were part of a larger whole.

So when we look at the issue of rethinking success, what good is success for an individual if the result is everybody else dying off, and as a consequence, the individual too eventually dying off?

In ecology we have the concept of overshoot and collapse: the flour beetles are a good example as they very successfully eat more and more flour and reproduce more and more, until suddenly they’ve eaten up all the flour then they all starve to death. So short-term success led to long term failure.

Perhaps more extreme but visually engaging is the example of somebody who’s just jumped off a hundred storey building, looking around and saying “oh my the view is so beautiful, I’m really enjoying this” but not thinking about the landing when they get down the hundred floors to the ground.

I think very often that is what is wrong with definitions of success today: they’re always partial and they’re not asking about the behaviour of the overall system.

From systems science we look at the complex interactions and relationships of all the parts of the system and seek how to achieve some dynamic balance among all of them. System have emergent properties that appear beyond what you might predict looking at any individual part of the system.

At the systems science conference, most of the scientists there were also open to the spiritual dimension. I ended up sharing with a lot of people about the Baha’i approach to things which seemed to respond to some of their questions. For example, the Baha’i faith offers a systems approach to religion. Its concept of unity in diversity is all about observing systems, cooperation and reciprocity, all systems characteristics, along with solidarity, with each individual being a trust of the whole. All of these are systems ways of looking at all of humanity and how it fits into the natural world.

Another example came from COP25 in Madrid, where we saw how each country defending its self-interest made it very difficult to come up with a solution satisfactory to the whole. Too few there were looking at the common global interest. They’re always having to balance what they think might pass at home, what will be politically possible or not possible, or following the vested interests of influential lobbies. They are measuring images of success in those narrower terms and ignoring what it means in consequences for the whole.

Another dimension of success: time-frame

Another dimension when thinking about success is the time-frame: in businesses it’s the quarterly or annual financial report that measures how you are doing relative to the previous quarter. It’s a very very short perspective. You wonder how often do people think about the future of the company?

When looking at the past, consider market leaders such as Westinghouse, Kodak or Pan Am. Because they didn’t innovate, they perhaps were poorly managed, but most importantly they were not planning long enough into the future. They were too comfortable in their past dominant position. Suddenly they were left behind when it became too late to take any corrective action, and they went extinct like the dinosaurs.

So we really do need to measure the time-frame for when do you determine whether or not you’re successful.

Of course success is not something you achieve and have and then have it forever after. It’s a dynamic question of balance: how long have you kept your balance and how long have you continued to progress?

If you look at the Baha’i perspective, you are looking at time-frames of a dispensation of a thousand year cycle. So if we were to look at sustainability in that time context, we would really be laying the foundation for a civilization that will prosper long in the future. Perhaps we need to think of success that at least stretches beyond the extremely short term that is the common framework that most people use today.

Collective success

Another dimension of the Baha’i approach to rethinking success is really acknowledging that it is collective. What good is success to you as an individual if everybody else around you is failing? Shouldn’t success mean collective success. We all need this to be successful together or we will all be failing together.

A company that looks at its individual short term success in terms of pure growth without looking for innovative ways to rein in its production of greenhouse gases will no longer have clients. Both its poor reputation and the practical climate consequences of its actions will have left it without people who will want to buy or consume its production.

We really need to explore how to look at planetary success. We really need to succeed on this planet, as we have reached planetary boundaries, overshooting many of them, and upsetting the balance of natural systems. How can we bring our impacts back into balance with planetary limits? How do we rethink the systems behind them, so that success is not how many more plastic packages have you sold, but can you find alternative packaging that can be recycled or become part of the closed cycles of a circular economy?

So how can we find the right measures of success beyond simply GDP or other economic measures? These fail to measure success but drive the system regardless whether it’s constructive or destructive.

Let us start to think about how to take a systems approach to this idea of success, recognizing that success is a dynamic process, that success is really achieving balance, a balance of the necessary material needs we all have whilst also aiming for uplifting spiritual nourishment.

How do we consider success as a set of processes going ahead, where hopefully, instead of diverging towards catastrophe, we will be converging towards a more sustainable society both in material and spiritual terms?


Last updated 4 January 2020