Notes on Worldly Success

Yesterday afternoon I sat for a while on the back porch, watching the rain and admiring my neighbor’s and my handiwork.  Over the weekend, we shored up the fence and gate in preparation for winter.  My neighbor knows a lot about carpentry.  I don’t, and because of that, I felt a huge sense of satisfaction, as much or more than I did a few weeks ago, when I finished a pretty good short story for the Writer’s Digest contest.  I guess with that attitude, I’m not likely to get my face on the cover of Time, either for carpentry or for writing, even though both can bring me a great deal of satisfaction.  Sitting on the porch, I started thinking of various examples of success and failure.


I’ve been reading a lot about Steve Jobs in recently published tributes.  Viewing the whole sweep of his life, he seems to have had great self-confidence and an unerring instinct for doing the right thing. Much of that impression comes from his 2005 graduation speech, the reflections of a mature man, sobered by a serious brush with mortality.  I found myself wondering how he dealt with setbacks when he was young and first starting to make his way?  Lives written in history books and obituaries often leave out the messiness, the dark nights of the soul, the nights we wake up a 3:00am wondering what to do.

Somehow the story of Jobs’s trek to India leads me to think he connected with his heart and intuition – as he talked about in his speech – at a pretty young age.  You don’t venture to a strange continent, in search of something you aren’t sure of, unless you are confident enough to live with uncertainty and believe you can find the answers.  Unlike many creative people, Jobs’s passion aligned with his livelihood, but that did not prevent the devastation of getting fired at 30 from the company he had founded.   He had enough wealth to retire from active life and never know want again, but failure prodded Jobs to come back and reinvent himself – and animated films while he was at it.

Rule for success:  Find a way to believe in yourself.
Another rule of success:  Never give up.
A useful tip:  Love what you do, if possible.

There are clear parallels in the life of Thomas Edison, 1847-1931, to whom Jobs is often compared.  Edison ran numerous unsuccessful experiments (estimates range from 700 to 10,000) before discovering tungsten as a workable filament for electric lights.  Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”  Did Edison ever come close to giving up?  Did he ever know dark nights of the soul?

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration" - Thomas Edison, 1903

Several of the pithy statements he made in maturity sound like things Jobs might have said:  “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.”   Like Jobs, Edison never dreamed of resting on his laurels:  “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.”  Perhaps my favorite Edison quote is this one:  “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”  Might that include a pile 2×4’s and fence boards?

Tip for success:  A sense of humor and a sense of play are marvelous attributes.


The list of Abraham Lincoln’s failures is often used to motivate people, because he had so many of them.  Here’s a more balanced chronology of his victories as well as losses.  He won some and lost some, just like everyone else, and like Jobs and Edison, he kept on trying.

Lincoln believed that he was an agent of destiny and spoke of “the chorus of Union” that would sound when touched by “the better angels of our nature.”  This sense of calling may have made his task possible but didn’t make it easy:  I’ve heard that he wept at the casualty counts from the last battles of the Civil War.  Like Jobs, he was aware of his own mortality:  a week before he was shot, Lincoln dreamed of lying in state in Capitol rotunda, but just like the men he ordered into battle, fear of death could not deter him.

Close to Lincoln during the last years of his life was another future president, Ulysses S. Grant, who may have been the only northern general able to win the war, but whose life outside the military reads like a litany of failure.  Born, Hiram Ulysses Grant, he discovered when he entered West Point that he had been registered as, Ulysses Simpson Grant.  He never bothered to change the name, and in a similar vein, gained a reputation as a sloppy cadet.  Though he served with distinction during the Mexican War, afterwards he failed as a businessman and a farmer.

As president, Grant was noted for enforcing civil rights and fighting the Ku Klux Klan, but his administration was was rocked by scandal and inept handling of the Panic of 1873, a world-wide financial crisis.  He left office on a note of failure, went into business with a man who cheated him, and died in debt and in great pain from throat cancer.  By force of will, he finished his memoirs before he died, which saved his wife from bankruptcy.

Like so many before and after, Grant was a poster-boy for another truth:  Worldly success is no guarantee of happiness.  This realization raises the critical question of what we really mean by success.  The purpose of life is finding happiness and sharing it with as many others as we can, according to the Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, a book I will have more to say about later.

In the meantime, I come around again to the thought of fixing fences with my neighbor.  When measured by the creation of and sharing of happiness, it may have been even more important than I imagined.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Worldly Success

  1. Thank you for the inspiration, “the dark night of the soul” at once seems difficult at best to overcome. So many dark nights as you alluded to never see the light of day…I wonder at the risk of being vulnerable if exposing those dark nights would let more light in, to see our successes, not only in light of our failures but perhaps as well in defining success in the first place.


  2. I was using “dark night” to indicate the whole range of doubts and uncertainties that we know so well in day to day living, but which seem to get lost in some biographies where you get to see a life from an overall perspective. Maybe its clearer in memoirs. I also may check out the upcoming biography of Steve Jobs by Isaacson, after reading his article in Time.


  3. This is really inspiring and thoughtful. They say good fences make good neighbors, but sometimes it’s as simple as good neighbors make good fences. Very satisfying post.


    • Thank you, Rosi. I’m looking forward to reading Jobs’s biography. From reviews, I gather it’s a “warts and all” account, all based on interviews with the man himself. Hmmm – maybe that is another rule of thumb – Care about truth more than just looking good.


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