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How Does Society Shape Our Perception of Success?
It amazes me that the single daily event of the sun peeking over the horizon can trigger such a range of responses from those who bear witness. Every emotion from dread to excitement. The difference is context. Each of us walk through life with our own collection of experiences that shape and condition the way we see the world. The one incident can therefore affect us all differently.
In stark contrast to our individual context, is the collective way in which society categorises its members. According to widely accepted criteria, we come up with behaviour that is considered normal. Society then requires us to conform to those standards and measures us accordingly. So despite an understanding that we are all different, we are conditioned to assess people against a pre-approved checklist. If they measure up, they are perceived as being successful.
We use societal norms to form opinions
This conditioning is perpetuated in business, where analysing statistics is a critical part of identifying our target market and ideal client. We tweak marketing campaigns and improve products based on statistical feedback. We depend on our understanding of societal norms to help us form quick opinions, and act promptly. It should come as no surprise that we may then look at people for the solid statistical information they offer, rather than subjective details. We rely more heavily than we care to admit on superficial observations to guide our response.
If we see a man in the street wearing no shoes, we look for signs that will give us enough information to categorise his circumstances. Is he wearing a suit or swimmers? Is he unkempt or freshly shaven? Based on our perceptions, this information helps us categorise the situation. It helps us know how to respond; what to feel, and what action to take.
In social gatherings we may hear of a couple who are divorcing, or meet people nearing retirement who don’t own their own home. We may have clients facing bankruptcy or neighbours who are out of work. The way we perceive these circumstances influences the conclusions we draw, and rightly or wrongly, we usually land there without hesitation. We think we know what success looks like because society described it to us.
What impact does this have?
But how does that ingrained practice impact on the way we assess ourselves? Do we see our own success enmeshed with our income, our post code, or the items we purchase? When things go poorly, how do we assess our performance? How do we perceive ourselves? I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that we apply the same set of rules. Perhaps we categorise ourselves as failures, disappointments, or worse?
A significant difference here is that we are not forming a fleeting opinion of someone we may never meet again. How we perceive ourselves is life changing. And when we measure ourselves by someone else’s standards, we restrict our ability to truly succeed.
Try this experiment…
This is difficult to do, but I challenge you to give it a go. Put aside what society equates with success. Ignore the status of your peers or your neighbours. Imagine yourself on a desert island if necessary. No rules or checklists, just you and your context. Measure yourself against nothing but yourself. Assess your journey and make a list of your achievements. Look at setbacks and gains against your own backdrop. Try to understand mistakes you’ve made, and reflect on how you might handle a similar situation differently. But most importantly, acknowledge the things you are proud of, the changes you’ve made and the things you have accomplished, because at the end of the day, these are the successes that matter.
It takes effort to retrain our thinking, but the results can be liberating. I’m interested in knowing if this exercise changed the way you feel about yourself or particular events. Let me know, will you?
“The opinions expressed by Smallville Contributors are their own, not those of www.smallville.com.au"
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