I just saw Whiplash and it is not only a great movie but also the perfect example of the “success through suffering” narrative that permeates the modern world in general and the US especially. In this movie a young jazz drumming prodigy is tortured relentlessly by his sadistic teacher and the extreme mental and physical pain he suffers makes him a star drummer.
There are a million other movies and books that subscribe to the same basic world view, according to which you can only achieve success through sacrifice and pain and the more it hurts, the more successful you will ultimately be.
I’ve been trying to think of stories in pop culture that have a narrative where someone achieves success through happiness, but the only ones I can think of (like Forest Gump and Big) are stories where idiots or children achieve success through their innocence and naiveté. This just serves to strengthen the narrative, since only idiots achieve success through happiness.
I think this world view is false. I think there is much more success to be found (in business, in art, and in life) in fun, happiness, camaraderie, and in simply enjoying what you do on the whole.
In real life there are many examples. Richard Branson clearly attributes much of his success to the fact that he’s enjoyed himself along the way. Ben and Jerry, the ice cream makers, say the same thing and so does Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Tony Hsieh of Zappos and many others.
I find it telling that the director of Whiplash Damien Chazelle was a serious drumming student as a young man and has this to say about that time:
[I was in] a very competitive jazz band that was modeled after professional bands. And I remembered being very terrified. That was my overall emotion during those years. Just dread. And not being able to eat meals before rehearsals and losing sleep and sweating my ass off.
To this day, he still gets nauseous when he sees a drum kit so when it came time to do the movie, here’s how he wanted to do it:
I like a set to be a happy place, where people can feel free to experiment. Especially, for instance, with this set. We only had 20 days to shoot the whole movie. The stress and the anxiety were just inherent in the schedule. So I tried to make it as stress-free of a set as possible.
So the whole “success through suffering” mindset is not only wrong, I think it’s become so pervasive that it’s become self-reinforcing. People go into many ventures expecting it to be tough, expecting to have to sacrifice many other aspects of their lives to “make it” – and if that’s what you expect, then there’s a good chance that that how it will end up.
Also, once people do become successful and start analyzing what worked, this narrative means that they’re more likely to attribute their succes to all the “hard work” and their sacrifices – even though their success may just as well have come from the times they had fun, the help they got from people who likes them or a supporting environment they found themselves in.
And finally, the very idea that you can slave away in stress and fear and frustration for years and sacrifice everything else in your life and THEN achieve your goal and just turn around and be happy seems very suspect to me. I think if you’ve been in pain for that long, that pain is most likely going to stay with you and you will be successful and unhappy.
And that’s why I’m convinced that the best path to success is not pain, it’s happiness. It’s not about comfort and choosing the easy path – but it is about making sure that you enjoy the process most of the time.
As we know, happy people are more productive, energetic, creative and motivated and also learn faster. So enjoying what do you will not only make you more likely to reach your goals, it will also vastly increase your chances of being happy once you do get there.
And that’s why I’m challenging the narrative that success comes through suffering.