Success

successNow imagine living a life, like Elizabeth Gilbert, in which you’re convinced that your greatest success is behind you. That seems to me a boring and not particularly ebullient existence: you’re holding onto a trajectory in which you’ve done the best you can and there isn’t anything better that you can do. You’ve hit the big time, and that’s it! Finito! It’s all downhill from here! But at least some elitist organization meeting out in the middle of nowhere will pay you a good sum of money to speak to a bunch of people who seem to believe they are successes based on a few large sums they’re filling into the blanks of their 1040s. And it’s all a bit confusing because the speaker has already reached the highest form of success possible! And the people who are gathered together at the secluded retreat have already predetermined that they are successes, based on being better than the sad Joe Sixpacks who must settle for the YouTube videos kindly distributed on the Web. I suppose, if you’re Gilbert or one of these dutiful attendees, you’re not really planning on being a better success, or the success that you have is somehow proportional to the amount that is in your checking account. But is that really success? Or is that boasting? And since boasting falls into that regrettable terrain occupied by arrogance, are the TED folks, in this particular instance, arrogance enablers?

Is it becoming for any artist or curiosity seeker to boast about any particular success? Or to put a final value on what success is? Is success, as Booker T. Washington once suggested, something to be measured not by the position one has reached in life, but through the obstacles that a person has overcome? And is it not incumbent for any decent person to create new obstacles so that success becomes meaningless? (Eat, pray, and love all you want. But if your soul is hollow and solipsistic in the first place, you’ll never get anywhere.)

By that measure, success becomes something unmeasurable and, in all likelihood, unattainable. It’s a bit like an experiment that the Caltech folks spring on first-year students. The story told to me about two decades ago is this: You put a girl at the end of the gym. You tell a group of boys that if they can get from one end of the gym to the other, they can kiss the girl. But the deal is this. They must constantly move one-half the distance that they started out with over a series of stages. Now it seems at first, particularly in the early stages, that you’re going to get to the other end of that gym. But, of course, as we all know, if you’re constantly moving one-half the distance, you’re constantly splitting the distance. One half becomes one fourth becomes one eighth becomes one sixteenth. You get the picture. But the incentive to kiss that girl — perhaps similar to the value of success we’re bandying about here — overwhelms any rational sense. You’re never going to kiss that girl if you constantly move forward by one half of the distance with each move. But perhaps you will if you never agreed to this condition in the first place.

Success then, like the Caltech experiment, is one of those tricky yardsticks that really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you’re quite happy putting your efforts into evolving, trying to get better, creating more obstacles. The honest person in this situation will tell you that she really hasn’t a clue as to whether she’s a success or not, because the honest person is forever shifting. Not letting some weird economic qualifier hinder or destroy what she does. Not letting some mythical unit called “success” put a cap on what she does. Casablanca, as we all know, was just a studio picture. It’s a fine motion picture, but it wouldn’t have happened if Michael Curtiz and everybody else had worried about how much of a success it should be or whether it represented the maximum amount of success that the cast and crew would ever obtain.

Such a burden seems counterintuitive to the wonderful impulse of being. Why should a subsequent failure matter so much because it follows a “success,” if, after all, the person working on the project is simply pumping the work out in the same daily manner performed in producing the “success?” (Unless, of course, there was never any plan to be distinct in the first place, and a convenient “book advance” permitted the person to live in a sad bubble.) Is this the way that we ferret out the frauds? We’re fond of penalizing the “lesser” work, when we really should be looking at the person’s entire trajectory. The real element to be concerned about here is the person who refuses to set up obstacles, the individual who settles into a declivity rather than fails quite naturally (and accidentally) in the act of producing more work. The person who takes the check to spread misinformation. The type who doesn’t understand that risk and failure are virtues. The austere soul who refuses to hop on board the wild rollercoaster of life.

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2 Comments

  1. Seems as if you’re missing the point to me, Ed. Although I can see where you’re coming from, what I took away from the talk was that there’s a probability that her “best” (read: most commercially accepted and bought) book is behind her. There’s no shame in thinking that. Happens to many an author. I think of Grady Tripp from Chabon’s Wonder Boys. What the gist of the talk was, for me, focused more on what a person/author can do to get over the hump of expectations, whether from the self or the frothing-at-the-mouth crowd. There’s anxiety in thinking that you’re dried up, a hack, and your one great moment was behind you. I can sympathize. She was proselytizing more for being dutiful and faithful to the craft than anything, it seemed. Everyone, in the end, has more than one great work in them. It just means showing up on a daily basis and putting the footwork in. It was much more pro-active than passive and negligent. In my mind, anyway…

  2. In the video you reference, Ed, Ms. Gilbert went off the track at the point where she used the Mailer quote about each of his books killing him a little more. If she wanted to reinforce her point about creatives being more suffering than 9 to 5ers, perhaps using a quote one hears all the time in the real world, i.e., “This job is killing me,” was ill advised. And just as she characterizes her fears about her future career in writing, it was all “downhill from there.” (Paraphrase.)

    So, simply judging from her pajama-like outfit, perhaps the real world and its people are a bit off her radar. (She can feel free to use part of that last sentence for her next book — which I’m sure will be a raging success — A Bit Off My Radar. You can be sure that off my radar is where I’ll keep it.)

    And she would probably have been better off talking about marketing instead of inspiration: her book has received, as of this writing, over 338 one star reviews out of 1,795 at Amazon.com and 145 two star reviews. “Bestseller”? OK. A success d’esteem — certainly not. I believe her book is, in short, a miracle of marketing — not creativity.

    There is a word for Ms. Gilbert. It is “meh.”

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