In Arthur Miller’s great play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, an unsuccessful middle-aged salesman, sinks to his knees before his wealthy brother and begs him to reveal “the secret.” But is there one? The reality, of course, is that success depends on many things and is defined in different ways by different people. In any case, the wheel of fortune is always turning, and no success is permanent.
First, and most obviously, you must be clear what you mean by success. Some define it wholly in material terms: the house, the pool, the car, and so on. For others, pleasant and enjoyable though such things may be, they do not equal success. An aspiring playwright, poet, or architect, for example, may not consider himself successful until he wins the praise and admiration of his peers. The British actor Richard Burton, who became a famous Hollywood star, once paused midway through shooting a new movie, sighed, and exclaimed bitterly “I could have played Lear.” In other words, wealth and fame provided no artistic fulfilment, and he felt he had sold out.
Maybe you care little for wealth, fame, or creative success and wish only to be at the heart of a loving, happy family. Someone who felt that way might consider their life a failure if their marriage disintegrated or their child became an addict. It is certainly true that many successful business people, or admired artists, feel a failure because they cheated on their partner or lost touch with their children.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote in his autobiography Memories, Dreams Reflections that when he looked back over his life, what had happened in his career seemed trivial compared to his relationship with the unconscious. Others devote themselves to prayer or meditation and seek spiritual enlightenment or awakening. Less dramatically, some define success in terms of self-growth and self-discovery. This is especially true of those who seek to free themselves from the damage caused by childhood abuse or neglect.
Finally, it is worth adding that success is not only subjective but relative. Indeed, this cannot be over-emphasized. To put it crudely, someone born to millionaire parents would not be considered a success if he earnt $100,000 a year. On the contrary, assuming he defined success in such a shallow way, he might even consider himself a failure. The child of unemployed heroin addicts, on the other hand, may feel a success if he avoids the path of addiction, gets a job as a waiter, and buys a small apartment. And the same is true of all forms of success. Many talented artists feel worthless failures compared to their greatest rivals, as do many sports stars. The British novelist Aldous Huxley, for example, once wrote that when he re-read Shakespeare he wondered why he even bothered to put pen to paper.
Knowing Who You Are and What You Want
First, you must work out what you want. But this can be trickier than it seems. Begin by asking yourself this question: are your ambitions your ambitions or someone else’s? Parents obviously have a huge impact on their child’s view of the world. Your father, for example, may have grown up in poverty and worked hard to build a better life. Because of his early experiences, he defined success wholly by money and possessions. You then absorbed this, or maybe just wanted to please him, and so now stick out a high-paid but loathsome career. The problem is, if you find something tedious and unfulfilling, you will probably be bad at it – whether it is a job, a marriage, even parenthood.
Strive always to be authentic. Know who you are, and be clear what you want. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you pragmatic or a dreamer? Are you deep and emotional or shallow and insensitive? It demands great strength and discipline to work all this out. It means listening to your inner voice and refusing to bow to social or cultural pressure. A woman may decide she doesn’t want children, for example, but feel pressured into doing so. Introverts offer a good example. Because extroverts dominate, there is an assumption that to be successful you must socialize and have lots of friends. But an introvert may feel much happier working from home and only socializing occasionally. If she is weak, she will worry what others think and so force herself to keep up with gossip, attend parties, or work in a busy office.
Your Relationship With Others
No matter how you define success, your relationship with other people is crucial. The more liked you are, the easier you will find it to achieve things. When people dislike you, they often do all they can to obstruct and undermine you. But do not underestimate them. If they sense you are using them, that you view them as mere objects to be manipulated in your own interests, they will resent it – and people are very good at spotting a fake.
So consider your basic approach or attitude towards other people. For a start, work on your conversation skills. Don’t talk about yourself or try and steer the conversation onto the subject that interests you. And when someone else is speaking, really listen to what they have to say. This is a wonderful trait and one that people appreciate. Above all, approach others with sympathy and respect. And rid yourself of delusions about your uniqueness or talent. Few people are so charming or loveable as those who manage to be both self-deprecating and sincerely compassionate.
Failure and Rejection
If successful people have one thing in common, it is their ability to cope with failure and rejection. A winner is not someone who escapes these but someone who accepts them as opportunities to learn. They accept them, without fear or self-pity, and they adapt. Indeed, with practise you can even train yourself to welcome them.
Unfortunately, many people cannot bear setbacks of any kind. They take it personally, seeing it as confirmation of their innate weakness or worthlessness. This then impacts on their life in several ways. For a start, it makes them shy and avoidant. They hesitate when quick, positive, and decisive action is required. For example, they fear approaching those they find attractive, or avoid declaring their true feelings when a relationship is underway. In an essay on happiness, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell notes that reluctance to express love for another human being is the single most common cause of misery.
Second, when such people do try and do fail, they are paralyzed and unable to take effective action. So, for example, someone whose business is failing will keep on borrowing and getting further into debt. Admitting his business has failed is impossible. Those who can cope with failure will see that things are going downhill, accept it, tell their family and friends, repay their debts while they are still manageable, and then try something new.
Adaptability and Change
Life is full of change, much of it unwelcome. How you cope with these changes will determine your success. You need to face up to the reality of the world and cultivate an open, adaptable attitude. As Bertrand Russell observed, “man is a part of nature, not something distinct from it.” And nature is movement and change. Nothing is fixed. Nothing, and no one, lasts. For most people this is a scary, unwelcome thought. In fact, so unwelcome is it that they often live in denial.
Denial produces numerous problems, however. For a start, it makes people rigid and inflexible. To run a successful business, for example, you need to be constantly alert, always open to new systems, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. But people achieve a degree of success and then assume it will go on forever. Some become smug, others complacent or over-confident. The same is true of marriage. Marriage, like any other relationship, changes and evolves, and the couple need to put in the work and constantly update their view of one another.
Realism and Self-Pity
Self-pity is another major obstacle. Like the fear of failure, it paralyzes you. And it can soon turn into despair. As Stephen Fry once said, life is hard on everyone, but it is merciless on those who give up. It is also a very unattractive trait, one that makes people whiny, miserable, and selfish. To be a success in life, however you define it, you need to be outward-looking. The more wrapped up you are in yourself, the more time and energy you will waste.
Another downside to self-pity is that it keeps you focussed on problems rather than solutions. And this ability to focus on solutions, to take quick, decisive action, is something you find again and again in successful people. In his great account of life in Auschwitz, the Italian writer Primo Levi recalled another survivor who “lost no time complaining or commiserating with himself…but entered the battle from the start.” When things go wrong, do not moan, do not look for people to blame, and do not shake your fists at the heavens – no one cares. Instead, ask what can be done.
Primo Levi also writes that “he understood before any of us that this life is war.” Levi may be going too far (after all, he was in the most extreme and horrible situation imaginable), but it hints at another quality common to survivors – they are realists. They know that nothing out there is going to come to their aid. People who enjoyed sheltered childhoods and protective parents never lose a vague sense that someone or something will always put things right. But successful people know they must rely on themselves. They know their limitations, and the limitations of others, and they know when to quit.
It hardly needs saying that there is no secret. They key point to grasp is that successful people are not those who own a house or marry a movie star – these things can be taken away at any moment. Successful people are those who cultivate a certain attitude, one that persists through good times and bad. So learn to be adaptable, realistic, self-aware, and above all able to cope with, and recover from, failure.