How Do You Measure Success?

“If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they’d better vote for the other guy,” Romney said. “Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people.”

Mitt Romney on Fox News Sunday, 2/26/2012

I’ve been thinking about the definition of success for quite a while, ever since Mitt Romney started bragging about how “extraordinarily successful” he is and whining about how anyone who talks about income inequality (outside of “quiet rooms”) is motivated by envy.

It seems that Romney defines success as amassing vast wealth in business by any means necessary. In Romney’s case, he made a fortune at Bain Capital by buying up other businesses and–in many cases–destroying them in order to enrich Bain’s stockholders. In the process, he put countless people out of work and drove families and even towns into ruin. Is that success? Should we applaud him for that?

Even if we acknowledge that Romney has been successful by a number of societal measures–graduating from Harvard, running a business, being elected Governor of Massachusetts–isn’t his definition of success still pretty shallow and limited? I think so.

I think my dad was successful. He grew up in poverty, survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, worked his way through college and graduate school, taught thousands of college students and inspired many of them to go into teaching themselves. He earned the title of full professor in his department and served as a Dean at his university. He helped my mom raise five children and did what he could to help us as adults. He was a loving and supportive grandfather and great grandfather.

My dad was honest and hard-working. He didn’t believe in cheating on his taxes or hurting other people in order to advance himself. He cared about his students, and they could tell he cared. He was loved and admired by both top students and average ones. I know because for two years I attended the university where he taught, and I met many students who enthusiastically told me what a great teacher he was. Some of dad’s students even wrote grateful letters to him after he retired–and we heard from others after he died two years ago.

That’s just one very personal example, but I think there are endless ways that people can be successful in life. It’s not all about money and holding high positions, as Romney seems to believe. Not too long ago, Romney became very defensive about a speech that President Obama made to a community college audience in Ohio:

Obama addressed GOP charges of class-warfare rhetoric while touting government programs before a group of community college students in job-training programs.

“These investments are not part of some grand scheme to redistribute wealth. They’ve been made by Democrats and Republicans for generations, because they benefit all of us,” the president remarked.

“We created a foundation for those of us to prosper. Somebody gave me an education. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance.”

Obama never mentioned Romney, but he drew a contrast between the Democratic notion that society provides opportunities for people and the Republican claim that individuals make it on their own–even if, like Romney, they begin with much greater opportunities than most. Romney responded:

“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” Romney said Thursday morning on “Fox and Friends.” “He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters. I’m not going to apologize for my dad’s success.”


“I know the president likes to attack fellow Americans. He’s always looking for a scapegoat, particularly those that have been successful like my dad.”

No one asked Romney to apologize, but why is he so incapable of seeing that he has received rich benefits from his parents and from American society? Why doesn’t his phenomenal success in amassing great wealth arouse in him a desire to give back to other Americans who weren’t as privileged as he was? It seems that all wants is to look down his nose at 99% of the population and give us holier-than-thou lectures about self-reliance when he never once had to rely only on himself!

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Kinsley wrote about Romney’s “failed definition of success.”

Among the secrets of success that Romney might wish to share is how you arrange to be born to a rich family. Or, to be less vulgar, an intact and loving family that valued education. Or, for that matter, to be born smart. The neocon controversialist Charles Murray writes books arguing that the second and third factors (family and innate intelligence) are more important than the first (money). You can argue about this all day, but in Romney’s case it doesn’t matter because he had all three factors hard at work, paving his way to success.

Is he even aware of it? Maybe Romney’s not so smart, because he goes on and on about how successful he is in a way that strikes people as obnoxious. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”

Is there a “resentment of success” in this country? I don’t sense it. Certainly you do not need to resent success in order to believe that successful people are, for the most part, adequately rewarded for their success.

And Kinsley asks, what about people who fail according to Romney’s definition? Should they just roll over and die?

A society that rewards success is good for the successful, and no doubt good for society as a whole. Romney is right about that. But not everyone can be successful. How many people did Romney have to elbow out of his way on the path to success?

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” That’s Gore Vidal, and it’s unnecessarily vicious. The pleasure of success shouldn’t depend on the prospect of others failing, but the reality of success usually does.

But failures are people, too! If success is mostly luck, then so is failure. When a government policy rewards success in a way that actually does lift all of society, that’s fine. But the policies advocated by Republicans, including Romney — primarily lower taxes on the higher brackets — would only make success more successful. They would do nothing to distinguish success for the few from success that really does benefit us all.

Last week, after Romney became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he gave a speech in New Hampshire to kick off his general election campaign. He again bragged about his “success in business” and talked about “character.”

In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded. And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school, and practiced in the workplace.

Well, I don’t think much of Mitt Romney’s character. To me, character implies empathy, caring for other people, and giving back to the society that has provided opportunities to succeed in whatever way we define success. I don’t buy Romney’s notion that only the rich and powerful are successful. I’d rather live in poverty until the day I die that have the kind of “success” that is built on hurting other people, as Romney’s is.

22 Comments on “How Do You Measure Success?”

  1. dakinikat says:

    I laugh a lot about my uberrich side of the family but I will say that the most quoted bible verse (besides my grandfather’s use of jesus wept as a cuss word) was: “For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” — Luke 12:48.

    I think they left that out of the Romney House bible. I would much rather use that kind of money–if I had it–to buy a hospital wing for children with cancer than a car elevator and horses that cost millions of dollars.

    • bostonboomer says:

      He did use his parents money to buy a building at BYU. I’ve heard he sometimes hands money to people he meets who are hard up. But there’s something missing in him, that’s for sure. He’s so defensive, that I almost wonder if he doesn’t really feel a little guilt–but he’s learned to repress it.

      • dakinikat says:

        I know he gives money to Mormon causes but that just helps Mormons and that in itself is a little weird. It’s a constrained generosity. Or giving with some kind of restraint or implied duty via church. I dunno … it’s not like he’s got a foundation that really does a lot for society. You do have to admire the Gates for that even if it took some ear bending by Warren Buffet to get them to do it …

      • Seriously says:

        I honestly don’t know if he even believes half the things that he’s saying. The only thing he believes is that he’s entitled to the highest public offices. I think the “success” meme is something that’s been focus group tested and repeated by rote. Not to say that he isn’t actually that defensive and arrogant, but he’s just such a craven politcally motivated cypher, I’m not sure if he has even that much capacity for self-awareness and guilt.

        Amazing post, and lovely description of your dad. 🙂

      • bostonboomer says:

        Thank you, Seriously.

      • HT says:

        BB, you’re Dad must have been a wonderful man. Such lovely memories must give you peace.
        Great post – and I agree with everything you wrote.

      • bostonboomer says:

        My dad wasn’t perfect. I was just trying to demonstrate that we all know people we think of as successful in life. They don’t have to be rich or powerful.

      • Yes, this is a wonderful story about your father BB, he has a legacy all his own……to me that is truly someone who has given something of himself towards the future generations.

        (and it doesn’t involve buying a building at BYU)

      • bostonboomer says:


        I’m beginning to think this is the real Romney. I don’t think the bragging being “successful” is focus group tested. I think most people are turned off by it. He may try to back off some of the far right views he has expressed, but I think they are real. Anyway, we certainly can’t take a chance.

      • BB, Boehner is pushing the same story…John Boehner Defends Romney’s Wealthy Background: ‘People Don’t Want To Vote For A Loser’ | Mediaite

        , Candy Crowley brought up Mitt Romney‘s privileged background and asked Boehner if it would impact Romney’s support in the election. Boehner dismissed that notion, saying “the American people don’t want to vote for a loser.”

        Boehner explained why, in fact, Romney’s wealth might give him a boost with the people.

        “They don’t want to vote for someone who hasn’t been successful. I think that Mitt Romney has an opportunity that they, too, can succeed.”

      • bostonboomer says:

        I saw that JJ. I’d be shocked if Romney doesn’t consider Boehner one of the “losers.” After all, Boehner’s parents were poor.

      • Seriously says:

        It’s definitely possible/likely that he really does feel that way, I’m just thinking of say, Reagan. Wasn’t he always going on about how the best thing he could do as President would be to create a society where it’s possible for a man to get rich? I think that sort of thing resonates with certain types of people. Not only rich people, obviously, but even the sort of middle and working class people who will never ever be rich but don’t like to think of themselves as just cogs in the machine or victims of circumstance. For people who want to think of themselves as better than everyone else, it’s almost insulting to think that the reason they’re not succeeding (measured purely in economic terms) is because they’re victims of the structural economy or circumstance just like everyone else. That doesn’t work for Supermen. It’s somehow easier to think it’s because the entire political class is conspiring to thwart them and impede success. So Reagan or Romney becomes their mouthpiece, advocating for the would-be-if-only successful loud and proud. I think this mentality is what leads some people to fight against their economic interests and act like they’re all on the same side in this crusade.

        • ecocatwoman says:

          For what it’s worth, I think people want to believe in the fairy tale happy ending that as adults in America is called The American Dream. What they don’t understand is that the boring 9 to 5 job that let them buy 2 cars and a 4 bedroom, 3 bath house with a 2 car garage would be wealth beyond belief for most of the people on the planet. They are living The American Dream & it doesn’t include an elevator for their fleet of cars. So they vote Republican because the Repugs perpetuate the myth.

  2. ecocatwoman says:

    bb, when I read your Gore Vidal quote what clicked for me was competition. Succeeding is winning and when one wins then one must lose/fail. It’s almost as if life is a game board and there is only one winner in the game, the rest are losers. And when we view succeeding in life as a competition instead of a cooperative enterprise, most players will not win. Apparently, that’s the game Romney is playing. Hopefully enough voters will chose not to play Romney’s game.

    And I totally agree with you – success is about empathy, caring and giving back. How come us non-believers are often more “christian” than the Jesus freaks?

  3. Very thoughtful essay & responses.

    The problem might be that most people haven’t read the Bible, especially DAK’s quote in the plead comment.

    Not many of the next generation will be able to make the sort of gains made by our parents & grand parents. The 1 % have been given sainthood and a free pass to loot from the 99%.

    Romney is in denial — which is why he keeps saying stuff like — people hate me because I’m rich.’

  4. bostonboomer says:

    This article by Steve Benen is a must read. He agrees with me that Romney is a true right wing radical.

    • dakinikat says:

      I don’t think we can predict what he’s going to do … he sames to be mister fantastic plastic … I think he’ll govern from the extreme right because that’s where his rewards will lie

    • northwestrain says:

      Mormons force their religion on women — ERA for example.

      I am certain that a Prez Romney would do his best to enforce the Mormon mythology about marriage.

      Romney is a liar — just like any other politician. But so is obama.

    • NW Luna says:

      Methinks Romney protests too much. Suspect that deep inside he knows he’s a greedy callous man and others see that.

      And if having a poor father is such a good thing, why doesn’t he cut his sons off from their multi-million $$ trust fund?