We live in a rapidly transformative globe. Bob Dylan’s prophetic song “The Times They Are A Changing” seems even more appropriate today than at the height of his popularity in the 1960’s. “The first one’s now will later be last,” Dylan sang, predicting the demise of Friendster, Myspace, Lehman Brothers, and Cabbage Patch Dolls.
Particularly in the technological sphere change happens faster than one can grasp. Change, in fact, seems the only constant. Just look at Kodak — a giant of the photography business made obsolete by the digital revolution. Or, for perhaps the best example, view all the companies Apple has skillfully cannibalized.
As technology dominates the national landscape, regardless of your industry, or, even, your stature, platform, and level of achievement, success is no longer so easy to ensure in perpetuity.
Everyone is familiar with the star system in Hollywood that chews talent up and spits it out, always seeking new acts to sate its feeding frenzy. Hollywood embodies the spirit of Count Dracula. There is never enough blood. Without blood Hollywood will die. Will melt. Will evaporate.
How often do people talk about Paris Hilton today? Pam Anderson? Julia Roberts? These were all — and to some extent still are — major stars in their own right — yet they seem to have largely been supplanted by new, younger, more saleable models.
Yet this is all a state of affairs that, if anything, favors the neophyte. With conditions rapidly altering, a guy in the C-suite today can become a street urchin tomorrow and vice-versa. Steve Jobs was adopted. Ray Charles was blind. David Mamet was abused. And so on and so forth.
The list of those who have overcome obstacles to skyrocket to success and prominence is endless. In today’s rapidly changing globe this can happen faster than ever. The American Dream is alive. Or is it?
In Class In America, Gregory Mantsios points out the richest 20 percent of Americans hold nearly 85 percent of household wealth. When you add in the fact that the gap between rich and poor in America is one of the highest in the industrialized world, as well as the obvious corruption revolving around the 2008 financial crisis, it is easy to understand how Occupy Wall Streeters became so disheartened. The Horatio Alger concept that America is a land of opportunity no longer seems quite so valid. For a brief time, at least, protesters around the globe gathered in swarms in an effort to challenge the system. Desperately sought change.
This is noble — structural alterations can only help. Still, until this change arrives, it seems best to keep positive, learn from mistakes, and continue to evolve.
Too many of us look at failure as an end. No! It is an opportunity. No man can ever really be great without enduring great hardships. It is these, and the failures, or, as I like to call them, existential lessons, that bolster one up and make one ready for yet greater levels of success.
No doubt frustrations are part of the process. In my ongoing quest to gain publication as a writer I’ve dealt with thousands of rejections. Those have brought me down at times. The form letters are difficult because they seem utterly lifeless — treating you as a cog in the machine. The personal responses, too, at times, can be harrowing.
I once sent a story to The Coal City Review the editor felt was too dark. This irked me. Too dark for coal miners? Aren’t these the same individuals who get covered in soot all day? Aggravating matters further, when I sent the work to another publication the editor found it too optimistic. Which was it?
As much as I appreciated the personalized feedback, the end result was to make me think of a line by Cicero, “nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself.” In the end, as an artist, and, in all activities, to a certain extent, you’re ultimately only left with your own judgment. Never take advice too seriously. Listen. Use what’s helpful. But be wary. For, as Josh Billings put it, “advice is like castor oil, easy to give, but dreadful to take.”
The key element is to to keep your spirits up. Even if, in your own estimation, you’ve come up short, it is essential that you keep hopeful. Maintain faith.
Failure is okay. Acknowledge it. Learn from it. Return to your trade. Or, as Samuel Beckett put it, “Ever tried, ever failed, fail again, fail better.”
Thomas Edison understood this better than most. When asked about the 10,000 attempts he made trying to invent the light bulb, over a period of two years, he reportedly said “I have not failed 10,000 times, I have found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
Countless important figures have emphasized that the critical element to success is this sustained effort. Woody Allen, for example, stated “90 percent of success is just showing up.”
But is this too simplistic? Not really. Take the case of Abe Lincoln. He famously endured a string of failures that could have easily brought him to his knees. At 21 he failed in business. At 22 he lost a legislative race. At 24 he failed in business again. At 26 he faced the death of his sweetheart, and, shortly, thereafter, had a nervous breakdown. At 34 and 36 he lost a congressional race. At 45 he lost a senatorial race. At 47 he lost in an attempt to become Vice President. Yet at age 52 he was elected President!
Lincoln persisted. He continued to plow along, like the tortoise racing the hare. Lincoln did not let defeat stand in his way. And, ultimately, he was awarded for his efforts, not only by becoming President, but, some would argue, by becoming a more effective leader, someone willing to take chances, someone willing to fail. Without those character traits he might not have stood up to great public disapproval and insisted on keeping the union together. Similarly, he might not have freed the slaves.
Lincoln is not alone. Van Gogh never sold a painting. Einstein did poorly in school. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Failure is almost a necessary condition for sustained success. It compels great figures to work harder.
But what if you keep failing and failing and failing — improving all along — yet never getting anywhere. What if, mysteriously, you end up in in a kind of twilight zone of failure, a black hole of dismay, sucking up your best ideas and crushing your faith in yourself?
This is depressing. Trust me — I have been there. There is not always a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. What if you try and try, like the Little Engine that could, only never make it up the mountain?
Well, what of it then? Do you think, on your deathbed, you’ll regret the attempt? Find it all worthless, a passing fancy, a triviality you dedicated your life to senselessly?
Doubtful. For you will have, at least, created what you were meant to, fulfilled your role, and found your place in the universe.
No failure is ever a failure with a vast enough perspective. Be like William Blake. Blake was a visionary. He always saw vaster possibilities in the world than the average soul. Hence, his famous quatrain, which, to my mind, is all about the importance of perspective: “to see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” This broader viewpoint, this capacity to see hope where others cannot, to look towards the eternal, the infinite, is what separates a success from a failure.
Don’t wait. I’m repeating this because it can’t be reinforced enough. As Andrew Carnegie once put it, “the first one gets the oyster, the second gets the shell.” Look at Amazon. Then look at Barnes and Noble. Amazon was first into the digital book-selling space. Barnes and Nobles has since been playing catch up. It matters not that Barnes and Nobles, at the time, was vastly superior. Amazon arrived at the party first.
The importance of being first, of jumping into the fray, cannot be overestimated. This has long been known. Thousands of years ago Publius Terrence put it like this, “fortune favors the bold.” The individual who risks all, who gets up and goes, usually reaps the greatest reward.
Particularly in creative endeavors, the act of taking that first step, of committing, makes so much more than you originally imagined possible. One simply needs to act and a new field of opportunities suddenly await one.
This seems to defy pure chance. But there are forces in the world that are on our side — friends, visions, dreams, past learning experiences. Much will come to your aid once you take the plunge.
Perhaps Goethe said this best, when he suggested, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans. That the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”