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.