Observing the dreadful poverty of the 1930s Depression, George Orwell wrote that it seemed to him as if some people inhabited "different universes" to others. The successful poets and society people he knew in London had no understanding of what it meant to be out of work and living on government welfare in the mining districts of northern England. Indeed, for some, life is nothing but a succession of disasters, both in their personal life and in their work life. Why is this so? Is there a secret to success, as so many self-help books seem to suggest? Perhaps the best way to understand success is to observe successful people and try to identify any traits they have in common.
Of course, people define success in different ways. For some, success means lots of money and a big house, for others it means status and power. A Buddhist, however, would utterly reject such things and define success as spiritual enlightenment. A devoted mother, on the other hand, may define success as the health and happiness of her children. Then again, a musician, poet, or film-maker would probably feel successful only if his work seemed good to him and he won the praise of those he respected.
Such definitions matter because different kinds of success require different qualities. A businessman, determined to make lots of money, would need the ability to focus, work hard, and inspire loyalty and affection in his colleagues. Less attractive traits may also help, such as greed, aggression, and ruthlessness. But these would be of less use to someone who wished to paint a beautiful sunset or raise a happy family.
How should success be defined? Freud thought the ability to work and love characterized the healthy and successful. In general, most would probably agree that a successful person is a happy person. But it would be naive and foolish to pretend that nothing else matters and that you should quit your job and move to a hippy commune! A happy, successful life requires at least some of the following: strong, loving relationships; fulfilling and rewarding work; enough money to enjoy a reasonable standard of living; and a strong sense of self-respect and self-worth.
Successful people tend to be strong and self-reliant. And this is usually because they have a realistic sense of self and the courage to live in a way that suits their personality, abilities, and temperament.
The successful achieve so much because they do not waste time and energy. They know themselves, meaning that they are aware of their strengths and are reconciled to their limitations. They also know their own personality type: whether they are introverted or extroverted, guided by intellect or emotion, pragmatic or romantic, and so on. Because of this, they know which sorts of jobs will suit them, the kinds of relationships to avoid, and the sorts of neighborhoods they will enjoy living in.
But self-awareness is not enough. Successful people know themselves, but they also have the strength and courage to live in accordance with that knowledge. Often, people ruin their lives trying either to compete with, and outdo, their friends and neighbors, or trying to be what they think others will admire. In doing so, they become involved in relationships that make them miserable, stick with cool or wealthy friends they dislike, pursue careers they loathe, or overreach themselves financially and go bust.
Imagine a young man eager to impress his friends and family. By nature he is romantic and easy going. He loves jazz and plays the saxophone. To please his parents, he takes a high paid job in advertising and moves to the city. To impress his friends, he marries a beautiful but shallow work colleague. He and his wife have nothing in common and the marriage unravels. He also hates his job. Being by nature sensitive and artistic, he is ill-suited to the harsh advertising world. Unconsciously, he begins to self-sabotage, doing a poor job, being yelled at by his boss, and eventually having a nervous breakdown. Had he lived his own life, in accordance with his own nature, and refused either to compete with, or try to please, others he might have been happy.
The American scholar Joseph Campbell used to advise his students to "follow your bliss," by which he meant living so as to fulfill your deepest nature. Do so, he added, and "doors will open". Living in accordance with your own deepest nature saves enormous amounts of time and energy, which can then be directed into more realistic and attainable goals.
Successful people are grounded in reality. Of course, most people are deluded to some extent. After all, everyone's view of reality is conditioned by upbringing, education, culture, and temperament. And at some point everyone sees what they want to see. But the more clearly you are able to perceive reality the more successful you will be.
A realist develops sensible and attainable goals. And when their pursuit of these goals goes wrong, they see the situation in a cold, clear light and adapt to things as they are. They do not waste time looking for someone or something to blame, neither do they imagine that fate has it in for them personally. Their appraisal of the situation will be realistic: they neither catastrophise nor do they underestimate things.
Fantasists, on the other hand, tend to do poorly. For example, a fantasist trapped in a boring job may decide to set up a business selling homemade jewellery. She allows herself to be carried away, picturing queues of sophisticated ladies full of praise and eager to buy. Before even finding the premises she is imagining what she will do with her profits. She then sets her prices too high and rents a property in the wrong part of town. And the worse things get, the deeper she retreats into fantasy, refusing to cut her losses and thus sinking further and further into debt.
Realists also tend to have happier and more successful relationships. They know that people are flawed, and they do not expect perfection. That does not mean they will tolerate a miserable relationship however; being realists they will know when things are not working and need to be brought to an end.
A loser is not someone who fails – everyone fails, from the beginning of their life to the end. A loser is someone who fails and then gives up.
Successful people know how to cope with failure. They accept that it is inevitable, that the wheel of fortune turns and things go wrong. Indeed, some even learn to welcome failure as an opportunity to learn. Most self-made millionaires will tell you that the key to their success was learning to cope with failure. They are knocked down, but they get back up, dust themselves off, chew over what went wrong, decide what they can learn and then try again – and again. As someone once remarked, life is hard on everyone, but it is merciless on those who give up.
Of course, nothing guarantees success. And, in any case, nothing is permanent – change alone is constant, as Heraclitus put it. In reality, no one should be described as a success; it would be more sensible to describe them as "successful so far" or "successful for now." Recognize this fact and be adaptable. The wheel of fortune is forever turning, and the successful are those who enjoy themselves when it turns in their favor but know how to cope when it spins the other way.