When I embarked on my experiment with nonconsumerism this year by joining The Compact, I assumed I would be successful. That is, I thought I would be successful at eschewing material comforts and making do with what I already had, with maybe a few slip-ups.
What I didn't realize was how much the whole endeavor would subtly work on my entire value system and worldview: what I care about, how I spend my time, and my definition of success.
I've been thinking about continuing with The Compact after this calendar year. That hadn't occurred to me when I started, but lately it seems very feasible. What's certain is that I'm not chomping at the bit, just waiting until I can go on a shopping binge come January 1st 2010. My Buy Nothing New commitment has changed me, because I've become aware of every purchase I make, and I could never go back to being an unconscious consumer.
And becoming conscious in this way has made me see more than ever how empty a value system that judges success based on material possessions really is. It's not that I didn't believe that before, it just wasn't quite as strong a conviction.
Sure, I like nice things. And having the bills paid and money in the bank helps us sleep at night. But once you're past that threshold of survival, does another pair of designer jeans really make you happy? A fancy car? A bigger house?
These questions aren't new or original, and each of us has to find our own answers, live our own lives, make our own discoveries. But I ask you: are people happier when they have more things, more possessions, more stuff? I've never seen any evidence of it. So why do so many people pursue that course so relentlessly? Sometimes I think we're a nation of people searching for salvation in a mall. Even some places of worship are turning into megachurches, mall-like entertainment centers that I can't begin to fathom.
And how do we buy all these things? We work more, to earn more money, to buy more stuff. I remember once back in the 1980s talking to a student from Germany. He couldn't understand why everyone was running around from one appointment to the next, their busy-ness an apparent measure of their success. He said that in Germany, people viewed success as having time to design their own schedules, and that included lots of coffee house lounging and intense conversation.
My idea of success squares more closely with this one than it does the materialist one. Lately I've been thinking that in our culture, the people we consider successful - namely because they make a lot of money - rarely have a moment to themselves. No time for introspection, goofing off, or just plain hanging out. They're slaves to their Blackberries. Maybe not at the level of Oprah or Bill Gates, but for many professionals who live in nice neighborhoods and drive Mercedes it's become the norm.
Certainly working at what you love, being good at it, and making a contribution in your field would constitute success. But that doesn't necessarily translate into material wealth. You could work for the Peace Corps, design a public space, be an excellent nurse, invent a labor-saving device, compose beautiful music, perform life-saving surgeries, write inspiring plays, discover a vaccine, or a million other things, and you may or may not be financially rewarded for it. It's nice if you are, but it doesn't prove whether or not you're successful.
My definition of success includes rewarding work (paid or unpaid), close relationships, an ability to appreciate and be grateful for what you have, having time to live an "examined" life and do the things you enjoy, achieving something you set out to do, doing a little extra when it will make a difference, and not always taking the easy way out. It would also involve a realization that you do make a difference, that we all do, and to resolve to work for what you know is good and right. To live your values. For me, successful people have made the world a better place.
In the end, I don't think anyone has said it better than Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
How do you judge success? Please let us know in the Comments section.