This blog is based on a mini-lecture, titled “success” given by Jeroen Jans for Radboud Reflects (Radboud University) at an art night in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.


In today’s society, there are two dominant assumptions: 1) we act out of self-interest, and 2) being successful means being highly educated and earning a high income. In practice, it thus generally concerns white, university educated, middle-aged businesspeople. And although they are the proto-type of success, they too struggle to meet this “ideal”. I will, however, argue that this doesn’t have to be an ideal at all. I will do this by bringing the work of Katrine Marçal[i], on self-interest, and Maurice Glasman[ii], on meaningful labour, together.


When it comes to self-interest, many liberals like to refer to Adam Smith who argued that the baker, the butcher and the brewer all act out of self-interest. So it’s exactly because of this self-interest that I’m fed. But, Marçal argues, Smith was a busy academic. So who cooked his dinner? The answer to this question is his mother. And chances are very limited that she too acted out of self-interest. The reason she prepared dinner for her son, was love. We thus appear to act as much from the heart as from the mind.

Other examples could be giving shelter to a refugee or helping your friend who’s moving house. But if everything is self-interest, why then do we do this? Even when we will never see the person again. Especially since, in the end, it only brings us a financial disadvantage. The reason is simple: these are moments when the heart speaks. In other words: we seem to act because we want to do the “good” as well. So our acting in the world equally reflects emotion and logic, selflessness and self-interest, solidarity and profit chasing. But these characteristics, which are mainly linked with women as opposed to “economically” successful men, have often been left out of the picture. Marçal argues that when you hope to make it in life as a women, you will be expected to conform as much as possible to the model of self-interest, of competition and battle.

Meaningful labour

We live in a time of abundance, and still, never before have so many people were faced depression and burn-out. But how can someone who’s only aim is self-interest be unhappy in a time of abundance? According to me, this has to do with finding meaning and satisfaction in what we do. And it is hard to argue that labour doesn’t matter in this regard, since we generally spend most of our time at work, whether it be paid, charitable or household work. Further, the professions in which people are most happy, seem to be the ones which have a direct societal character.

Glasman therefore argues that the most important thing in labour is whether you find meaning in what you are doing and whether it directly contributes to society. If this is true, we could question why we assume that a political scientist is of more societal importance than a plumber? And don’t we need a mason just as much as a lawyer? When we take this argument seriously, it requires a stronger recognition for manual labour, in wage as well as in attitude. For as Rik Torfs argues: how much a job is paid, reflects the importance society attributes to it[iii].


What I really consider to be success, is doing what you really want to do, becoming good at it and doing it in service of society. This allows you to find satisfaction in work and feel supported by a broad network of people. Whether you aspire to be an electrician, a financial manager, a politician or a house man/women, should be considered all the same in the sense of meaningful labour when the previous requirements are met. But if so, it has to be equally accessible for everyone. Regardless of ethnicity or gender.

[i] K. Marçal, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, A Story about Women and Economics, Portobello Books, London, 2015.

[ii] See for example: M. Glasman, Politics, Employment Policies and the Young Generation, in N. Sagovsky & P. McGrail, Together for the Common Good, Towards a National Conversation, SCM Press, London, 2015, p. 171-182.

[iii] R. Torfs, Waarom verdienen leerkrachten minder dan reclamejongens?, in, 6th of October;

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