By Jennifer Kavanagh

Success! What a glorious, ringing, resounding sound that has. Something golden to reach out for, a pinnacle to attain. Passing, winning, beating – success is heady stuff. We all have images in our mind: of applause, champagne, triumphant smiles, curtain calls, laps of honour, and of parading through cities in open-top buses.

Actually, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of success was an outcome, whether good or bad: just something that follows. This meaning is still in use in the word “succession” when one person follows or “succeeds” another in a role or in a family. The current usage of the word “success”, however, shows a shift to “the prosperous achievement of something attempted; the attainment of an object according to one’s desire, now with particular reference to the attainment of wealth or position”.

This concept of success (and its frightening shadow, failure) is embedded in our culture.

Given the magnitude of its profile, the enduring attraction of books on how to attain success in every aspect of our lives, from the seminal How to Succeed at Business without really trying onwards, comes as no surprise. We devour advice on how to succeed with women, at interviews, golf, work and even at breastfeeding. There is no part of our lives, it seems, in which we ought not to be striving for success. Not succeeding, failure to succeed, is a humiliation beyond bearing.

Success in this model is based on a collection of stereotypes, including wealth, property, marriage, children, a circle of friends, and to be respected in the local community. We may come to believe that we are judged by our house, our car, our job, even the holidays we take. The image of perfection created by an omnipresent edifice of advertising insists that success brings with it a certain body type exuding good health and fitness: the men sporty and tall, the women slim.

The result for many people is status anxiety. For anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, be they gay, unable to have children, short, unfit, dyslexic or unemployed, it is not surprising that a sense of failure hovers. A South African friend put it more strongly: “Everything about you in magazines and so on shouts that you don’t make the grade”, leading to “a pervading sense of guilt and inadequacy” in society.

And we project our anxiety on to others, demonising particular groups, such as those in prison, people with mental health issues, and those of no fixed abode, labelling them losers and failures. Those stigmatised may well know that their failure predated their current circumstances – indeed was likely to have been a contributory factor. Statistics show that those in prison are low in most of the indicators of “success”, such as housing, education, employment, literacy, and relationships, before they went into prison – and often are lower still afterwards. Repeated failure leads to what psychologist Martin Seligman has called “learned helplessness”, a condition in which the individual believes that he has no control over his life. “That is how it has always been, and nothing is going to change.”

What we forget is that people falling into these groups are not some small minority. It is estimated that one in six of all people in the UK suffer from a significant mental health problem at any given time; that thousands of families live in temporary accommodation, and that at least 20% of the working population (and one in three men under 30) have criminal records. They are our neighbours. In other circumstances, they could be us. If we define success in material terms, then we are relegating not only these stigmatised groups to the abyss of failure, but much of the population. With a reference to the fact that the richest 1% in the United States own 1/3 of the net worth of that country, the rallying cry of the Occupy movements speaks for the rest of us:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

Ian, one of the founder-members of the Occupy London group, told me about a homeless man who had been sleeping outside St Paul’s Cathedral for ten years. When the encampment joined him, he became part of a community, and his life was transformed. He was valued, he became part of the decision-making process, and he gave up drinking. “Why”, asked Ian, “does Jim have so much value in our community, and none in the world outside?” “There is”, he said, “a different currency at St Paul’s.”

A material-based definition of success discards most of humankind. Millions of people round the world are trapped in lives with few choices or opportunities to change them. Can we call that failure? In 1999 I went to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. It was my first trip to a developing country and, before I went, I was asked if I was ready for the culture shock. I replied that I am easily upset but that I cannot for ever wear blinkers. In the event, I was amazed to discover that I was not upset, but moved by the courage, energy and dignity of those I met. As many others have testified, it was on re-entry to my own country that the culture shock kicked in. When the general standard of living is low, the struggle to surmount it is a communal one. It is making comparisons in an unequal society that lowers self-esteem, and leads to a sense of failure. Poverty is more shameful and oppressive in a generally wealthy culture.

It is in Britain that I have witnessed more of that “learned hopelessness” – but, surprisingly, not generally among refugees, despite the fact that in many cases they have access to less help than those born here. Refugees have learnt to survive and have had the courage and energy to leave and start again. No, the hopelessness is to be found more generally among those stuck in generations of unemployment and dependence on benefits. It is not one-off mistakes that do the damage, but the inability to recover – the “staying down”. And it is our glittering success culture that helps to keep us there.

From The Failure of Success, published by O Books at £9.99

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