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Redefining Success

Seeking the path of maximal personal happiness.

By Griffin Koontz

“Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

One of my most vivid memories is from Bhutan, a small country snugly fit between two of the world’s most rapidly growing nations: China and India. Ten years old at the time, I was walking with my family on an unpaved road in the capital city Thimphu, when we encountered a chain-link fence surrounding a construction site. About fifteen yards from the fence were a handful of workers shoveling gravel into a wheelbarrow-sized cement mixer. With each toss of the shovel and turn of the mixer they uttered a resounding cheer, like a group of excited soccer announcers watching a penalty shootout. As we passed by, one of the workers cried out, “Hello!” between cheers. Surprised, we looked around, but when it became clear that he was speaking to us, we waved and said, “Hi!” in return; immediately afterward, their cheers changed to a chorus of “Hi!”, “Hello!”, “How’s it going?”, and other greetings. These cries carried on for quite a while, and it was quickly apparent that, rather continuing the conversation with us, they were simply sharing joy amongst themselves. Later on our trip, we learned that the Bhutanese government aims to foster an economy that maximizes gross national happiness, in contrast to the West’s focus on material development, which is often measured by gross national product. This context certainly shed light on our experience with the construction workers. It was amazing to see how redefining success in terms of happiness instead of material or financial gain could have such a tangibly positive effect.

While this policy has certainly had a beneficial effect for Bhutan, the technique of redefining success in non-traditional ways can be applied in a myriad of situations. For instance, it has helped guide my college experience, where I find that it isn’t difficult to confuse mastery and specialization with success. It is easy to feel successful when one’s research group makes a groundbreaking discovery, or when one’s sports team wins a conference title. Indeed, it is this sort of achievement that, for many individuals, justifies the countless hours of work and preparation. On the other hand, it’s harder to feel successful when pulling out a less-than-stellar grade in a class in a challenging and unfamiliar discipline. It’s harder to feel accomplished after struggling mightily at a new sport, only to make slow but incremental progress. Said alternatively, society rewards excellence. But can we redefine success to encourage the exploration of new things and the departure from our comfort zones?

This is a perspective that calls out to me, and one that I do my best to adopt; for me, college is a time to explore. Having dived into computer science and a cappella in my first two years at Stanford, I’m taking my first classes in philosophy and linguistics, and I’m learning the fundamentals of electrical and mechanical engineering for an extracurricular team project in water purification. In addition, I recently joined a non-audition hip-hop dance crew and am trying to learn to draw. I am a total beginner in each of these areas, but I consider my achievements to be the times when I am willing to stick with something completely new; in this frame of mind, overcoming a lifelong aversion to dance is just as remarkable as becoming an accomplished dancer. While many of these achievements may not be considered traditionally successful, they expand my possibilities for the future and are opportunities for personal growth. I don’t know where my college experiences will lead me, but I have no doubt that my exploration will continue long after graduation, and that in the Bhutanese tradition, I will not stray far from the path of maximal gross personal happiness.

In collaboration with Tau Beta Pi

Tau Beta Pi is the only honor society representing the entire engineering profession across the nation. Their chapter at Stanford strives to promote academic excellence, leadership, and continued service to the larger engineering community. They host events and organize initiatives including peer mentoring, K-12 outreach, alumni panels, CEO dinners, project fairs and more. For more info, check out tbp.stanford.edu.

Griffin Koontz

Other than spending a year abroad in Beijing, Griffin was born and raised in the Bay Area. At Stanford he is a section leader for CS 106 and a member of the a cappella and hip-hop dance communities. In his free time, he likes to sing and play guitar/piano, and to find pickup soccer games across campus.

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