In search of wisdom
The tenets of the success philosophy were simple and have changed little ever since: failure is scary, so work hard and don't fall behind; keep it safe and don't take risks; don't be different and stay with the group; it is better to be warm with the majority than being left alone in the cold; and above all, you should avoid fundamental doubts and never question what everybody else is taking for granted.
Reality, however, soon proved my doubts justified. For starters, I never met anyone who could be considered really successful according to the demanding standards that had been preached to me. Secondly, whenever I met people who called themselves successful, I found them so lacking in wisdom that I felt pity for them.
At that point, I began to realize that the kind of people that fascinated me never felt into the standard success category. The artists I liked were usually struggling or just getting by. The philosophers that I appreciated were far from being famous and wealthy. The movies I loved had no violence, no stars, and no special effects. What was that supposed to mean?
The original question
The years passed and, reluctantly, I embraced part of the official philosophy of success, although my conversion was uncertain and superficial. It did not take long before the old doubts came back to visit me, in the beginning every week, then every day, and finally, every night.
Whenever I made a pause and took the trouble to look around, the original questions returned to hunt me more strongly than ever. Human life seemed to be made more of dishevelled threads than of steel frames. The people I liked best had managed to strike a balance between their ultimate purpose and their immediate attachments.
In my eyes, determination without benevolence turns a person into a jerk rather than a success. Motivation without consideration makes people reckless and empty. Ambition without resilience results in anxiety. Engagement without perspective leads to intolerance. Definitely, I told myself, this is not the way to happiness.
Then one day I happened to read a biography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English naturalist that formulated the theory of evolution through slow variation and adaptation of animal species. Since its inception, Darwin's theory has opened more wide-ranging discussions in society than any other idea in history.
Before reading about Darwin's life, I had assumed that he had come up with the theory of evolution at some point during his scientific expedition to the Galapagos, that he had quickly published his results, and that he had enjoyed for many years the prestige and wealth arising from the subsequent controversies.
The decisive step
I was as wrong as you can be. Darwin's life story was much less glorious than I had expected, since it shows a man who had only moved towards success with utmost shyness and insecurity. In Darwin's actions, I found more hesitation than determination; in his doubts, I saw the reflection of my fundamental questions; in the middle decades of his life, I saw more risk aversion than entrepreneurship.
If failure is the equivalent of immobility, I concluded, then a good part of Darwin's life consisted of failure. Believe it or not, the man who is reputed to be one of the greatest scientists in history, procrastinated for fourteen years before publishing his theory. It is believed that Darwin's hesitation came out of his fear of criticism, although other factors may have also played a role.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Charles Darwin might have died before taking the step to make his theory public. Apparently, by the time he turned 35, he had already put his thoughts in writing, but he only took the initiative to make his conclusions public when he was 49 years old, that is, fourteen years later. I suggest that you stop here for a second and ponder what you are planning to do with the next fourteen years of your life.
What is even more amazing is that Darwin was only prompted to publish his theory out of the fear of seeing another scientist come out first with a book on the subject. Only when Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858 did he realize that, for him, it was going to be now or never.
Wallace had come up with the same theory while doing research in the Malay Archipelago and, in his letter, he had presented a summary to Darwin. After fourteen years of paralysing doubts, Darwin swiftly made up his mind, prepared his notes for publication, and took the decisive step. All his fame and success come from that critical step, for which it took him fourteen years to gather enough courage.
Harbinger of success
Darwin's story made me wonder if failure and hesitation, instead of being the inhibitors of human success, should not be rather viewed as the harbingers, almost the prerequisites of any substantial achievement. Maybe, I thought, although failure is disruptive and scary, we can only appreciate its meaning when we place it in a long-term context.
Failure changes our way of thinking and our future actions, often turning us into wiser and more successful human beings. Indeed, failure is frightening, but only to a certain point. That's the point at which each of us is given one more chance to turn our lives around.
Image by Martin Pettitt under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us
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