Winners, losers -- and that new third party

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When times are prosperous, most people don't get too fancy about their definitions of success. The old cliches are permitted to pass. The bottom line is the bottom line. ''Making it'' is measured by nice, simple, quantitative dollars. Or at least they used to be quantitative.

1982 - in case the dog sleds and helicopter drops failed to reach you the past 12 months - has not been one of those prime times. And perhaps as a consequence, strange, unheard-of things are being said about the golden goddess. For instance: ''There is no such thing as success without love,'' public television's apostle of the hug, Dr. Leo Buscaglia, has cried - and cried again. His elementary message, expounded in print as ''Living, Loving & Learning,'' was on the New York Times best-seller list in third place at last check, after 31 weeks among the front-runners. Something about the lovable cuddler's soft focus seems to speak for all the gentler attitudes toward success that emerge when money gets tight.

A change can be detected even in hard-ball circles where Horatio Alger still remains pretty much the ideal. Take, for example, the publication Success, also known as ''The Magazine for Achievers.'' The pages huff and puff with all the old exercises of the upwardly mobile will. Every other sentence, it seems, calls for ''motivation'' and ''positive thinking.'' The ads offer cassettes that promise to help by whispering in your ear: ''There will never be another me.'' (We can supply, on request, a cassette that murmurs: ''You can say that again.'')

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Those who ask, in effect, ''How do I motivate myself to be motivated?'' are told rather crossly: ''If you want to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastically.''

But amid all the self-hype, Success magazine, in this chastening year of 1982 , sobers down enough to consider the possibility at least of what it euphemistically calls ''setbacks.'' A headline asks the reader, ''Can You Take It?'' Beneath the ominous question unfolds a ''resiliency test,'' devised by Andrew J. DuBrin, author of the book ''Bouncing Back'' - a 1982 title if there ever was one.

Students of the American myth of success will recognize that Mr. DuBrin has introduced a third option into the old two-party system of success/failure, winner/loser. The ''resilient person'' is the temporary failure on his or her way to lasting success, to the tune of you-can't-keep-me-down lyrics from ''The Unsinkable Molly Brown'' on the sound track. But by inventing this gray area, this limbo, what heresies Mr. DuBrin commits against the old orthodoxy of success!

''Winning is everything''?

No, answers any ''resilient person'' who wants to win on this test.

The ''resilient person'' also gets full marks for saying yes to ''There is no disgrace in losing'' and ''Finishing last beats not competing at all.''

Where are you now, Vince Lombardi?

And what do you think of these apples, Andrew Carnegie, not to mention Dale? The ''resilient person'' doesn't find that ''the prospect of failing to accomplish something important makes me shudder.'' Furthermore, he or she ''could stand the shame of being fired'' and wouldn't even ''be crushed if somebody I loved turned down my marriage proposal.''

You can send somebody else to ride point for the wagon train too. Clearly no John Wayne, the ''resilient person'' thinks ''it's a good idea to avoid high-risk jobs.''

Has Mr. DuBrin spaced the ''resilient person'' right out of the winner's circle? ''A distinguishing characteristic of successful individuals is their ability to roll with the punches,'' Mr. DuBrin argues. But how many punches does a successful individual have to take before he ceases to be successful?

Mr. DuBrin does warn his top scorers that ''you might be too resilient,'' while belatedly reciting the litany of old virtues (''enthusiastic,'' ''positive attitude,'' ''optimistic''). Still, like Dr. Buscaglia, he is substantially rewriting the concept of success as the standard melodrama of the hero of indomitable will and the overflowing pot of gold.

A lot of factors have gone into making the old simplistic ideal of success obsolete - the counterculture of the '60s, Watergate in the '70s, and now the rocky economy in the '80s. We do not even recognize all the changes yet. We have lost a kind of innocence; we have not, so far, worked out alternative ideals.

But we are inclined to regard the De Lorean story as a cautionary moral tale. Fewer and fewer of us can still accept that success is a matter of self-intoxicated workaholics clashing in a battle of survival-of-the-fittest. And that is a beginning.

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