Beyond earning a medical degree, completing residency, and obtaining board certification and licensure, a psychiatrist's career grows to be illustrious with wisdom, curiosity, intellect, aesthetic sensitivity, compassion, empathy, generosity, and more.
Even if that were possible, what meaning does success have in a vacuum? For the ambitious, there will never be enough awards, presentations, and publications. These are hollow achievements by themselves. Kept in the confines of one’s CV, accolades are meaningless, a collector’s obsession. It is only in the context of one’s relationship with a community that these become meaningful: a community that one has contributed to and a community that takes pride in one’s achievements. What is left psychologically of one’s success without this embrace of community and family, except hauteur and snobbery?
A healthy degree of ambition is necessary for success in life, but it needs to be tempered by other values in the context of meaningful life goals. “If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough . . . Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” -David Foster Wallace
We cannot run from ourselves without great cost. If experience with psychotherapy (as trainees) taught us 1 thing, it is our need to be honest with ourselves. We all have aspects in us that are dark, shameful, or embarrassing, and they would be frowned upon by society if they were ever to be revealed. Yet, we do great damage by refusing to acknowledge these fragments of our psychological lives.
Those who have achieved some degree of self-honesty will understand and recognize how emotionally constricted our social relationships can be. Ethical considerations are valid restraints to self-expression, but social prejudice and mindless etiquette should not be. Seek honesty in friendships the same way you seek honesty in your relationship with the self.
Intelligence is no refuge against this; in fact, a higher cognitive ability may even be associated with a larger bias blind spot. Intelligence fails to protect from other kinds of cognitive biases as well. The magnitude of myside bias shows very little relationship to intelligence. This highlights the need for immense humility: We need to be continuously mindful of our own vulnerability to self-deception. In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously.
The facts of life have tarnished us: “. . . the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir but fellow sufferer, compagnon de miseres. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.” -Arthur Schopenhauer
Success is never guaranteed, even to those who may “deserve” it. And certainly, even the most accomplished people do not always succeed in everything they do. Accept that no matter how intelligent, powerful, or resourceful you are, you will fail, at one point or another. Life is fragile, and we are all helpless in the face of entropy of existence. Instead of allowing disappointment to turn us into bitter, base, and vengeful “creatures,” we can transform ourselves for the better. How we respond to pain and evil impacts our moral character.
Life is vast and complex, and it deserves to be approached with awe. There is intrinsic value in our attempts to understand this existence. Ask questions. Seek out answers. Be curious about yourself and others. Take delight in the discoveries of shared curiosity. “The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others.” -Bertrand Russell
We are imperfect, and there is always room for improvement—personally, professionally, morally, emotionally, artistically, and intellectually. Meaningful success is rarely achieved by staying within one’s comfort zone. Be inspired by leaders in your field. Although one may feel miniature in comparison, aspire to see the world from their vantage point and build from there.
We find meaning in the pleasures that come our way, in being our better selves, and in generative concerns to leave the world a better place. Professional success alone is no measure of eudaimonia, and one must be wary of paths to professional success that are littered with oppressive loneliness, alienation, apprehension, and self-indulgent greed. Flourishing will not be found in drudgery but in intellectually stimulating and fulfilling work that urges us to be our best selves.
Dr Aftab is a psychiatrist in Cleveland, Ohio, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. He is a member of the executive council of Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry and has been actively involved in initiatives to educate psychiatrists and trainees on the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry. He is also a member of the Psychiatric TimesTM Advisory Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @awaisaftab.
Slideshow adapted from 10 Meditations on Succeeding—and Flourishing.