We have a sense… as born-and-bred and even aspiring Americans… of the virtues of success. Success is one of the words that seems to perfectly encapsulate what it means to be an American. We strive. Even if we don’t reach what we and others define as success, it is what we are always trying to achieve. No one strives to be mediocre. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I intend to fail today!” This quality applies to all humans – probably all living beings – but it is more a part of our American heritage than others, rightly or wrongly.
I think, however, that we have an overly simple idea of the process and life cycle of success. It seems to be such a static thing. If we do the right things, work hard, and have a little luck, we will succeed. If we continue to do right, work, and take advantage of fortune, we will continue to succeed. When we let our guard down, only then do we have a good chance of failure. Right?
This isn’t the way success always works, neither in our social and economic lives nor in any other realm. Humans, economic systems, ecosystems, and others have a strange tendency toward what Jim Rubens calls Oversuccess. This refers to the dangers of success becoming hostile to itself or its beneficiaries in ways that undermine the benefits it endows. The underlying theory here is that perhaps the very elements that lead to success contain the seeds of eventual failure.
For example, Jane Jacobs showed in her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that many thriving city neighborhoods have taken a dive because of oversuccess. Cities thrive on all sorts of diversity. When a particular type of land use or industry or interest group succeeds to the point that it dominates and upsets the delicate balance that the diversity maintains, the city often falls into stagnation, which eventually threatens the future success of the victor. Detroit is a prime example. Over several decades, the auto industry came to dominate almost all aspects of the city’s economy. As the industry succeeded to the point that it became cheaper to outsource a good chunk of its manufacturing, the city had little for the blue collar workers to fall back on. Its own success birthed its spectacular failure.
The same thing happens in ecosystems. By definition, they exist in a delicate balance of staggering diversity. When one actor in that system begins to dominate, the system trends toward upheaval and collapse. Usually the system is intricate enough to correct itself. The oversuccessful carnivores become hungry for lack of adequate food and begin to die off until their food source regenerates, and a new balance is established. But when an overly dominant species (usually humans) destroys the underlying fabric of the system, ecosystems can – and do – collapse. Our millions of square miles of corn fields are basically failed ecosystems that we try to regulate with synthetic fertilizers, causing all sorts of other problems down the line. I’m sure Michael Pollan would agree that corn has classically oversucceeded. It can’t go on like this forever.
Oversuccess certainly happens in the business world, too. Clayton Christensen built his theory of why big firms often lose market share to small upstarts (The Innovator’s Dilemma) upon the idea that the reasons why they fail are the very same reasons why they succeeded in the first place. The skills that make them great at getting big often make them deficient at succeeding in new markets. Many of them do everything right… at least in their big business context. They try to market fundamentally different products to their established customers and through their established distribution channels, and they often get nowhere doing it. Unless they are willing to cannibalize their own sales and resources, their own spectacular success renders them vulnerable to eventual failure.
Two more interesting examples. Cancer is essentially the oversuccess of a type of cell that, when it crowds out enough other vital cells, the organism (and thus the successful cell and its copies) dies. Perhaps the key to a cure is somehow convincing the genetic code of the successful cells that what they are doing is not in their own best interest. Finally, we can think of the exploding epidemic of autoimmune diseases as the disastrous oversuccess of the immune system. These are not successes we can celebrate.
In his book, Rubens focuses on the problems that come along with a culture that may be too economically and socially successful for its own good, thus we get depression, anxiety, and massive division. I see it most clearly every major political cycle. Trump may be getting too successful for the Republican party’s own good. The pole-ward shift of both parties may be too successful for their own good. The success of our anti-Islam sentiment may be destroying a vital piece of who we are as a people. On the flip side, a successful ISIS (for now) may be unwittingly laying the groundwork for its own failure. It is the way of things. This realization may be solid ground for us to experience hope. Yes, things are out of wack everywhere, but it can’t go on forever like this.
There is always the chance that we won’t survive the threats we face as a species, but if history has anything to say about it, the overly successful come crashing down… and something new rises up in its place.