It is not immediately obvious what it means to be successful in life. The term is used generally to describe a professional success, that is, a signal achievement at work, indicated in part, but only in part, by having made a lot of money. Sometimes success means preeminence in politics or science or sports in a manner that does not necessarily imply financial attainment, but rather public recognition. Those who become famous in the arts or by virtue of charitable acts or acts of bravery are thought to be successful also. Others speak perhaps less conventionally of successfully raising children and grandchildren. That is not what most people mean by success, but a good case can be made for that achievement being especially important; and different societies have regarded the work of bringing up the next generation as critically important.
Let me say what I mean by success: success is the ability of individuals to reach their own goals and achieve their own purposes. I do not mean goals such as becoming a movie star, or winning the Nobel Prize in literature or becoming the President of the United States. Or simply making more money than everybody else. By that standard virtually no one is successful. But I think it is possible for these individuals and others to find in other ways those satisfactions that are associated with those lofty achievements, namely, recognition, admiration and a sense of importance.
However, I recognize that certain particular accomplishments tend to mean success to most people. These are: finding a job and a career that has status in our society and that brings with it enough financial reward that it is possible to live comfortably. This is the familiar picture of a house with a picket fence. The particular kind of work they will engage in will otherwise vary widely. Part of this success—in the eyes of most people—is a loving family, usually including children--and good friends. And having a place in the community.
Plainly, there are a number of factors that influence someone’s future success, starting with choosing the right parents in the right country. The children of affluent, educated parents are more likely themselves to be well-educated and ultimately employed successfully in good jobs. I take this to be an outgrowth of plain good luck. And good luck enters into people’s lives over and over again in many ways. Most truly distinguished individuals acknowledge the influence of luck in their lives.
The children of the “right parents” are likely to move in the right circles. If they attend the right college, they are likely to meet and marry individuals who are, themselves, successful. Every lucky step along the way gives more opportunities.
Also, for reasons that I do not need to belabor, it is advantageous for an individual to be especially bright, unusually attractive, talented, and, even tall and strong. None of these qualities guarantees success, but they all help. But put together they will not add up to very much unless certain other qualities of mind and personality are present. In other words, having all these advantages will not prevent some people from botching up; and we all know someone like that.
There is one overriding quality of mind and personality that weighs more strongly than anything else in determining eventual success. It is character. Eventual success depends more than anything else on the ability to keep striving in the face of disappointment and rejection. And failure.
I have been struck over the years by how many people fail despite growing up with all the advantages of money and good health; and by how many others there are who start off impaired and impeded by emotional and physical illness and being born into dysfunctional and abusive families, and still manage to succeed. Included in those success stories is a man who could not attend school growing up because of a phobia which then prevented him from leaving his neighborhood, but who ended up owning three or four food franchises. He had previously failed in one business after another. Another man with a similar story ended up going to medical school at a somewhat advanced age and became a pediatrician.
I remember another man who had spent three entire years in a mental hospital when he was young and who kept losing jobs subsequently, but who persisted in looking for work until he found a stable job as a mechanic. He married a woman who loved him, and they had two children.
I remember a woman with a learning disability who kept talking her way into jobs that she then failed at until she finally rose to prominence in a cosmetics company. Every successful author has gone through a prolonged period of rejection after rejection. Many of the greatest Presidents have failed at previous endeavors or been defeated in previous campaigns. These include Grant, Lincoln and even Washington.
I remember a very troubled young man who managed on his first date to lock himself outside a building on a fire escape. He had one romantic misadventure after another until he finally learned how to approach a woman. After five years of treatment he married.
There was a middle-aged lady who did not think much of herself but who joined a church and by virtue of helping everyone became admired and then beloved by everyone.
I find myself admiring these people who seem to surmount insurmountable difficulties simply by not giving up. They suffer embarrassment and sometimes humiliation, and yet they do not give up. Sometimes I see a child in school who is like that, and I know—and I tell the child’s parents-- that that child will turn out okay. I know that child will catch up, because it is the single virtue of persistence that makes for success. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask questions at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/