When I first read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I didn’t fully fathom the genius of the novel. I was in high school, and saw it as a traditional unrequited love story. Not until I experienced many of the common concerns of growing up—falling in love, seeking acceptance, longing for success—did I begin to grasp the essence of the novel—an epic coming of age story. All of these themes are intricately woven into the narrative.
Great Expectations depicts the personal growth and development of Pip. From his youth to adulthood, Dickens takes us through many changes in his personality, shaped by the events and characters that influence him. Dickens portrays a bewildered world, not unlike our own, in which wealth and success hold meaning and sway. The beautiful Estella is at the top of the societal order, and Pip desires to become a part of it to acquire her. But Estella lacks judgment and remains impervious to him. When Pip realizes that his life’s purpose was merely an illusion, an internal struggle forces him to redefine his values.
The novel ends not fulfilling any great expectations, but with Pip rising to a new self-awareness. By losing everything that blind ambition caused him to desire, he wins happiness and freedom. A moral regeneration leads him to understand the true worth of people and things. Life thus takes a new meaning.
I used to equate “success” with wealth accumulation and social status. If I could also save the world or champion a noble cause along the way, then that would be super. I was keen to establish my place in the world. My work was my center. The quest to reach to the top defined me. Anything that advanced my goal made me happy, and anything that hindered made me sad. The gap between my life’s ambition and reality was filled with great expectations.
I hustled along. There were things to do, places to go, people to meet. Striving for the future helped me to escape the weariness of the present. Because there was so much I wanted to accomplish, I always felt confined by time. But subconsciously, I enjoyed telling people about my busyness.
According to writer Alain de Botton, one of the most interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. Yet, our ideas about what it means to live successfully are often not our own. Modern society places immense pressure to define success in material or worldly terms—wealth, fame, position, or power. This affects what we want, and how we view ourselves and others. “He is successful” is code for “he is rich.” But it shouldn’t be this way.
Something meaningful was lost when we made a tacit agreement to grade people based on their achievements. In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote, “It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.” It’s the person, not the job, that should count. Studies show there is no clear positive correlation between wealth and happiness. If we can meet our basic financial needs, money adds little to our level of fulfillment. This explains why our pursuit of material goals proves less satisfying when attained. And there’s the crux. Today’s definition of success needs serious realignment.
My unknowing 20-year old self sought to live an ideal sucked in from other people. My notion of success was based on superficial impressions, rather than my own sense of purpose. Like Pip, I misconstrued everything, including my heart’s desire.
Thankfully, my reorientation did not spring from a midlife crisis or an emotional breakdown. As I developed a deeper understanding of the world and our existence, my perspective changed. At 28, unmarried, with no kids, no debt, and enough savings to support me for a few years, I quit my job as a prop trader. I aimed to create a life that reflects my values and satisfies my soul.
In short, I traded money for meaning.
“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” observed writer Annie Dillard. To me, a life of presence is more precious than a life of promise. I decided how I want to live, and went about finding a way to make a living within that way of life.
I’m very nuanced about what the word “success” means to me now. I still do what I love and work very hard, but life doesn’t feel like work anymore. I no longer mistake “doing” for “being” and am closer to my natural rhythm. My faith is now my center of strength. And, it has been well said; all is well with the faithful, whatever the circumstance.
The whole future lies in uncertainty. So I stopped trying to control or even predict where I’m going. As the poet Anatole France wrote, “If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.” The last four years have been the most fulfilling and rewarding, both personally and professionally.
The lesson here: we must not confuse the impulse toward self-improvement with cravings for material success. In order to improve our circumstances, we should strive to improve our character.