Earning Success: Why the Exceptional Get Results

It’s a harsh reality: average workers will have a much harder time in today’s economic climate. The competition is heating up and those who are exceptional will have traction, gratification and fulfillment in the workforce.

Average workers don’t put in the extra that sets them apart from other members of the team, whereas exceptional workers draw energy from harnessing  their unique abilities. It may sound like becoming an exceptional worker will be much more depleting than putting in average effort, but, in fact, it’s the opposite. People who feel “very successful” and “completely successful” at work are twice as likely to say they are happy than those who only feel “somewhat successful,” with their level of income making no difference in their levels of happiness, according to Arthur Brooks in the article “America and the Value of ‘Earned Success.'”1 Exceptional people are driven to become exceptional for its intrinsic value (in happiness and fulfillment), not extrinsic value (in dollars and status).

Brooks makes the distinction between the unhappily average and the happily exceptional by explaining the emotional segregation between “earned success” and what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” With earned success, rewards and punishments are tied to merit, causing people to be driven by the reward of happiness. With learned helplessness, rewards and punishments are not tied to merit, causing people to give up because they feel powerless and depressed.  People who make the greatest contributions in the world are the ones who are satisfied and inspired enough to fulfill themselves and improve the world for others.

Being exceptional personally, in school, in our economy, and in our society, are all inextricably linked. The happiness that results from “earned success” reminds us that our desire for a better world and a happier disposition is a desire that is intrinsic and human. As Brooks puts it: The stakes in the current policy battles today are not just economic. They are moral. Young people have a better chance of contributing to the world as a whole if they can contribute effectively to their own lives, family and community.

Every day our lives move further away from what we’ve spent millions of years defining as human, and come closer to what we used to know as science fiction. While classrooms integrate more technology, more people communicate over devices, more businesses explode online, more people become stressed over grades, money, mortgages, weight, happiness, relationships, etc., we have to ask why it matters. There are so many things that clutter our lives that it can be easy to forget to leave room for the human element that should drive why we do what we do and want what we want.  The new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle underscores this reality.

As we continue talking about standardized tests, let’s remember that the conversation is not about test scores; it’s about giving every one an equal chance at an excellent education and an excellent way of life. Being competitive globally is not about being number one on a list; it’s about handing our kids and their kids a healthy country where education is a priority and their potential can be realized. Lowering unemployment, raising high school and college graduation rates, and preparing college students for the success in the workforce is not about numbers; it’s about leveling the playing field for all individuals to have a shot at being an exceptional person with an exceptionally happy life. Those are the ingredients of an exceptional world and that, while challenging, is within our reach.



1America and the Value of ‘Earned Success,” by Arthur Brooks. 8 May 2012. The Wall Street Journal. Accessed on 11 May 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304749904577385650652966894.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

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