Survival is better than (individual) success

I find the capacity to recover one’s sense of self and motivation as essential to what makes for a meaningful life. It’s an irrational response to calamity — but it’s borne in one simple desire that we all have somewhere deep inside: the will to survive. Try not to confuse this with the will to (individually) succeed — it’s a lot different.

This is embodied well in the movie that Robert Redford created (that flopped in the box offices — but I loved it) about a person stuck in the open water by themselves.

There’s no reason that the protagonist should make it, and each step along the way he should give up. But he doesn’t. He’s not trying to succeed at anything — he’s just filled with the will to survive.

The will to survive is about surviving together with the underlying hope of thriving together. Because what’s making it to the end of a story without friends to celebrate with?



Now, it’s important to note that some people are less fortunate to be in a position to be in this state of life — i.e. with the ability to rebound. This happens for a variety of reasons: 1/ lacking the privilege of being set up in a life that gives them the resources to overcome, 2/ their battling a mental illness they were born with or acquired later in life, 3/ there are so many reasons that all humans are not the same so we can never assume it to be the case.

For some people, it’s possible to train yourself to hone the survival instinct. One type of training I recommend is Kofman’s “Victim”/”Player” method:

Caution: There was a time in my life where I found it especially useful to me — but it won’t be for everybody. Why? Because we’re all built differently.

And then there’s regularly reading this one essay by John W. Gardner on “self-renewal” with the passage here that always gets me recharged:

“There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.”

—John W. Gardner

So what’s the takeaway? First of all, I blog in an unedited form — as a means to talk to myself I guess. LOL. That’s the key takeaway you get, hopefully. But if you’re looking for something else, I started this post thinking how the drive to succeed is counter to the idea of survival. Because all too often success comes at the expense of others. Surviving, on the other hand, comes across as wimpy because you don’t get the gold medal for surviving. Things would be a lot easier if our society defined “success” as “success with others and together with others” — but I’ve found that’s not how the word’s used outside of the Confucianist world of Asia. Success means “ME!” And I’m not really big on that definition at all. Maybe there’s a world where “selfies” become “weies“? I’ve noticed that the Google Pixel 3 camera lets you go wide-angle to capture more than just yourself — and I love that!

Survival means you get to survive with all your teammates — that’s essential to a good surviving outcome. The best part of the Robert Redford movie is not that he survives. It’s the fact that he survives and gets to be with his loved ones that he could have easily lost forever. THAT is what success looks like, to me. And I’ll keep aiming towards that vision of “survival” as what awesomeness can feel like … —JM

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