When Success Became a Dirty Word

By Tamara Carleton
April 7, 2014
General Foundation

“The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you.”

― Bette Midler

There have been so many celebrations of failure in business recently, it seems success has become a dirty word. From ideas like “failing up” as a way to celebrate rightfully-earned humility to entrepreneurs boasting about their failed ventures to potential investors, one is left to wonder about what success actually means. 

In a forthcoming piece in Business Horizon Quarterly magazine, I explore the changing views of success—especially the view of success in the American Dream—amid a climate in which the notion of corporate success has become tangled, even synonymous, with greed and entitlement. We see prominent industry leaders such as Tom Perkins making headlines, reacting angrily to the criticism of the wealthy class. We are all familiar with the rise in leadership books espousing Zen-like approaches to business, promoting values of humility and asceticism over the ebullience of other eras. 

But are we really to assume success should be shunned? Hardly. 

In fact, with small business confidence at a high, it’s hard to reconcile the semantic distaste for a celebration of “success” with the enduring spirit of the American Dream. The idea of success has been intertwined with the American Dream since our nation’s pioneering early days. Success was tied to not just land ownership, but to a progressive accumulation of wealth, improved educational opportunities for successive generations, and more recently, to entrepreneurship and small business ownership. 

Indeed, the American Dream is very much alive and well today, and my interviews with a range of business leaders—young and old—demonstrate that the dream has changed in nature. Here in Silicon Valley, I see the emergence of a new vision for personal success moving beyond the rugged individualism to a more inclusive, collaborative concept of success shaped by entrepreneurship, learning, and meritocracy. 

Across the United States, there are multiple instances of American innovation as markers of global success. And my prior research into the abundance mindset of urban and regional planning leaders shows evidence that envisioning successful futures are key to actual long-term success. 

The latest Kauffman/LegalZoom Startup Confidence Index reveals that 91% of entrepreneurs believe their business will be profitable in the coming quarter. If confidence is a measure of success, as I posit it is with deep roots in the American Dream, I suspect it won’t be long before success makes it back into our accepted lexicon.

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