When I was a kid, I never really got to believe what I was told about success. Life seemed to have many more tracks that the one that was being officially preached. There were too many interesting destinations and I saw no justification why only one of them should be correct. In fact, I reasoned, how could anyone dare to formulate a model lifestyle that all people were supposed to follow at all times?
No more hesitations
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.
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.
Struggling and getting by
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?
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.
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.
Determination and resilience
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 and depression. 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.
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
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
Using failure for personal growth
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
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.
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.
A better philosophy
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.
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.
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