Sticking my neck out: That’s what I thought I was doing as I sat down to write on the subject ‘success’. There is a fairly established idea of what success is, and the public opinion is more or less unambiguous, and even cut and dried. Any attempt, therefore, to take a radical view of it would certainly render me liable to be labelled old-fashioned, regressive, and a stick in the mud. But I must speak my mind lest I should regret later not telling what I believe to be the truth. In my experience it is far better to face the wrath of the crowd than to suffer the pangs of one’s own conscience.
Let me now state the bone of contention. Our age is suffering from a neurotic obsession with success. Honestly, I don’t see anything wrong in anyone trying to be successful in life, but what I am curious to know is, whether we have a comprehensive idea of success. Basically, success is a multidimensional idea, and as we try to understand the subtle aspects of it, we may be in for a few surprises, if not shocks. We may discover certain complex issues at the core, which will convince us that our road to success has led us far away from the destination rather than nearer to it.
To start with, we shall first consider the idea of success from the historical perspective, and then in the contemporary context. In olden days, success was the prerogative of kings and emperors while the subjects lived a mundane life. Not that they wanted to, but they really had no choice. From times immemorial, man’s struggle for, as well as his enjoyment of, success has been on two planes: the physical and the psychical.
At the physical level success meant wars won, territories conquered, and treasuries looted. But seldom was a king pleased with the spoils of invasion alone, without a deep psychical gratification. He, therefore, indulged in gruesome acts like torturing and executing his captives, and occasionally paraded his generosity by showing lenience and clemency, mostly to women whom he later admitted to his harem. He organized several public celebrations to gloat over the ruin of his rival and crow over the fallen enemy. It was a matter of great emotional fulfilment to see people bow before him awestruck by the aura of glory which he imagined surrounded him.
In evidence of what I have said, let me now present the case of two legendary heroes. In Homer’s “Iliad” Achilles slew Hector, the charismatic warrior and the son of Priam, the king of Troy. He knew that in killing Hector he reached an exalted state, and therefore wanted to make a show of his triumph. He tied Hector’s legs to his chariot and drove around the Trojan city for the whole world to see and tremble before him. His psychical thirst remained unquenched until Priam himself pleaded with him to release his son’s body for a decent burial.
The other legendary hero was Rama, the heir-to-throne living in exile, who waged a war on the demon king of Srilanka. The battle was drawing to a close as the demon king stood disarmed, yet defiant. The epic extols Rama as a paragon of magnanimity, not totally untrue though, when he spared his enemy a day to re-arm and come to fight the following day. On the surface level, Rama’s act seems laudable, but I am tempted to interpret his so-called magnanimity as the front-end emotion, the obverse of his feeling. The real motive or the back-end emotion was to deal a psychological blow to his foe who he knew, was a great musician, a powerful king and a conqueror of several kingdoms. Nothing would have pleased Rama as much as smashing his ego. That was exactly what he did when he denied what Ravana desperately wished for: a clean, honourable soldier’s death. He thus reduced the stature of his great foe to the size of a worm writhing in the heat of humiliation. The next day, he ended the abductor’s life with a single shaft. It was like a fearsome bowler bullying a tail-ender with a barrage of bumpers and bouncers in the last over of the day before polishing him off in the first over on the following day.
Alexander led his army across alien sands and hostile terrain, conquering nations, plundering, pillaging, executing kings and marrying their wives and women of all races. In all his escapades, he was fuelled by an invisible glory that elevated him to the status of a super human being or a mini-god around whose head was a halo of celestial light, 'the great', indispensable only to him, but invisible to others. Adolf Hitler was mad enough to declare openly his maniacal obsession with his Aryan supremacy. One man’s insanity cost the lives of millions of Jews, as Hitler arrogated to himself the divine role of cleansing the world with his anti-Semitic hatred.
Historians and storytellers have romanticized the adventures of kings and emperors, but the plain truth is all these great rulers were great fools. Firstly, they were foolish enough to believe that those around them were happy to share their sense of glory. The bitter truth was that not even the most faithful of their friends showed any interest, leave alone the sycophants and flatterers. In the end the king was alone, living within himself, listening to shouts and echoes of applause all within his head. He was well on the way to becoming a paranoid. Hitler became mad; Alexander died in Babylonia, even as he was trying to grab at the elusive glory. Captured and incarcerated in St. Helena, Napoleon died dreaming of his ‘emperorness’, which had already died in Waterloo. The Bourbon king Louis XVI must have cast a searching look around to spot the faded glory, even as his neck was put under the heavy blade. Stripped of all glory, the bullet-ridden bodies of Benito Mussolini and his dead mistress were hung upside down outside the royal palace. Secondly it never dawned upon them that there were options better than war that could have brought them rich material and mental returns. Thirdly, they were too blind to see that success is the resultant of the perfect combination of many personal and impersonal factors and such a combination is hard to obtain and harder to sustain. This, then, is the historical perspective of success, or the failure of success.
History is a great teacher, but we are poor learners. What we have acquired from it is only rat’s wisdom. Timid as they are, rats live in perpetual fear of death and so, they spare no efforts to secure their safety. They burrow into any field for food and flee back to their alleys when they sense danger. Looking at the colossal loss of lives and large-scale destruction that one man’s hunger for glory had caused, we have swung to the inglorious extreme of security and self-preservation. We have redefined success as the attainment of economic stability with little or no loss of life and property. The kings of the past said: ”Your pain, my gain.” We say, “No pain only gain.”
Let us face the truth. The moment you begin to think of security as the chief good in life, you cease to be the unique individual endowed with rare talents and skills. You consign yourself to a machine that heats, melts and beats you into any shape of its choice. An authoritative voice yells: “You can’t be what you want to be; you have to be what we expect you to be.” Can you see that just to secure economic stability you have already paid a price? A part of you is dead. There were days when I looked over my shoulders with pride and joy at the six wonderful years of school teaching. Now with a heavy heart, I see the finest sensibilities, sharp intellects and sensitive souls trapped in chemical labs and IT corridors. Minds that would have shaped into brilliant lawyers, charismatic lecturers, efficient administrators, inspired artists, articulate orators, impressive journalists, and enlightened preachers have been bought into slavery, frightened into submission and buried under the tomb of security and self-preservation. Alright, you have surrendered so much of ‘you’ to earn that big money. Can you with all the money buy back a small bit of the lost ‘YOU’?
The edifice of life is supported not merely by economic stability. Social adaptability and emotional security are equally important to it. It is a basic life lesson that happiness depends upon how well you handle your social obligations and emotional ties. Now tell me: Caught in the rat race, do you have an idea as to how you are going to equip yourself to handle these sensitive aspects of life? Remember, you are already at a disadvantage, thanks to the schools and colleges, which have done a disservice by bleaching and sterilizing your sensibilities and sensitivities. In the rainbow of your mind, all the colours seem to have merged into one. A graceless grey.
I think I have presented as objectively as possible some of the subtle and not-so-pleasant aspects of success. Though in form the historical personalities differ from us, in essence we are all the same. The king wanted glory and for that purpose he needed an external enemy, a loser or the vanquished. We don’t need an external enemy. We have found one in ourselves; our own higher self on which we have waged a war, taken it captive and put it away in some dungeon for good. Can’t you see that we are wiser than those kings? No bloodletting, no violence, no wailing and no tears. The kings had genocidal urges. We have suicidal tendencies.
Who, then, are the really successful people? Before I answer this question let me first discount the word success as derogatory and use another word ’victorious’, though it sounds a little pompous.
There were, are and will be a class of people, the chosen ones who neither crave for glory, nor seek security. On the contrary, they are keenly aware of that mysterious spark in them, the basic carbon that constitutes their personality. They have a clear vision of the mission which they are called upon to fulfil in this world. They have a fine sense of discrimination, which tells them what is worth seeking and possessing in life. Their inner worth radiates centrifugally, lighting up the world around them.
Madame Curie’s struggle to find her feet in Poland and UK did not deter her from pursuing her chosen goal. When Ronald Ross, the inventor of quinine, sang for joy, “Oh death, where is thy sting?”, it was the triumph of a mission. Old Socrates emerged victorious in his death for he knew that he had sowed in young minds the seeds of logical reasoning, spirit of enquiry and rational thinking. They are the great warriors fighting not against mankind but for mankind, invisible enemies. And they are the ones who are remembered and respected more than the Alexanders and the Czars. They knew that victory was an integral part of a mission and they felt it at every stage: in conception, in organising, in execution, in trials and troubles, in failures and in fruition of it. I don’t think Madame Curie or Thomas Alva Edison would have felt less victorious if radium had not been extracted or the electric bulb had failed to work. Would you feel the same way if your degree failed to land you in a lucrative job?
I am positive that you are beginning to see clearly the third dimension of success. I would not like to create an impression that I am urging every one of you to try and become an Einstein or an Edison. But certainly I would go to any length to make you do one fundamental thing, which those great minds felt compelled to do. Just take a dispassionate look at yourself to discover that special or unique material you are made up of.
You are victorious,
When you become conscious of this material that sets you apart from others.
When you are convinced that this basic carbon is a potential diamond and all it requires is your patience and perseverance to convert it.
When you assert your unique personality in the face of stiff opposition.
When you feel that you don’t have to be less than you, simply because someone else by doing so is able to earn a few dollars more.
When you believe that an enlightened mind is in itself a victory and so whatever it does is victorious.
When you realize that your unique mind has been created for a specific purpose and start doing what you ought to do, you become a part of the grand plan of life, its mystery and its beauty.
Your English Sir
Original Post: Dated Saturday, the 7th of October 2006
PS: This viewsletter is a tribute to all those who have had the courage of conviction to listen to their inner voice and consequently suffer insults and scorn from an insensitive society.