Solon of Athens on the True Measure of Success
In a world of teen tech prodigies, YouTube millionaires and overnight sensations, the measure of success is often defined by how quickly we’ve reached our goals. Our idea of success is becoming skewed by our own impatience. This story by Herodotus offers refreshing insights into the true measure of success and how soon we should hope to get there.
What does it mean to be successful in life?
It’s a question we’ve all pondered and which, hopefully, we should all have our own personal, if vague, answer to. But whatever the measure of success we adopt, I’ve always found that the real, scary question that kept me up at night was this one:
Am I on track?
These days, we’re all acutely aware of the passage of time. We make our idea of success dependent on goals we set for ourselves, but reaching those goals feels like a desperate race. Whatever our endgame, whether it’s climbing the career ladder, having kids or losing weight, we always feel like we’re behind schedule.
It doesn’t help that our get rich / famous quick culture keeps pressuring us with unfeasibly young and wealthy role models, and that social media is constantly exposing us to our idols’ my-life-is-so-awesome highlight reels.
Our generation was raised to believe we’re all special snowflakes with unique callings and a singular destiny, so we don’t realise how absurd it is that we measure our success against that of the top artists, athletes or tech billionaires of our time. I don’t mean to sound unambitious, but isElon Musk really the guy I should feel in competition with?
Solon On The Measure Of Success
Count no man happy until he be dead.
Life was pretty sweet for Croesus.
He was the richest man in the world, the ruler of many nations and generally beloved by his people. So when he received a visit from the wise elder statesman Solon, he thought he’d show off a little by giving him a tour of his palace and its vast treasures. Looking for some affirmation from his distinguished guest, Croesus asked Solon a question:
Oh Solon, as a man renowned for your wisdom and your wide travels, tell me — who is the happiest of men?
To Croesus, this was a rhetorical question admitting only one answer. But Solon wasn’t a man prone to flattery. Much to Croesus’ surprise, he gave the name of some obscure Athenian. Croesus was flummoxed, but asked him who the second happiest man was, sure that it would be him. Again Solon brought up some private citizens.
Here’s who Solon considered the happiest of men, and what he considered the measure of success:
1. Tellus the Athenian. A citizen of good standing, who raised healthy children. His kids all had children of their own, each of whom survived. Tellus died a glorious death, falling on the battlefield while winning a victory for Athens, and was honoured with a public funeral.
2 and 3. Cleobis and Bito of Argos. These two brotherswere award-winning athletes — a huge deal to the Greeks. One day, they needed to get their mother to the temple in time for the festival of Hera. With no oxen available, the brothers strapped themselves into the ox cart instead and pulled it five miles to the temple. Everyone at the festival was awed by their strength and congratulated their mother for raising such fine sons. She was so overjoyed that she prayed to Hera to bestow upon her sons the very best any human being could attain. After the feast, the two lads lay down in the temple and never woke up. This was seen as a blessing from the goddess herself and the citizens dedicated these two statues of them (and their danglers) as examples of supreme virtue.
On hearing all this, Croesus lost his proverbial shit. He demanded to know why with all his wealth, Solon didn’t measure his success as highly as that of a bunch of dead plebs.
Here’s what Solon replied:
A human life cannot be judged happy until it has been completed.
Solon explained that life, and the Gods that rule it, are fickle. We live 70 years and no day is the same as another — in all that time, we’re bound to experience things we don’t want to. One can be rich and powerful, but that’s just temporary luck. It is only once he has led a decent life and then died well, that a man can truly be considered fortunate.
In other words:
It is necessary to see how the end of every affair turns out, for the god promises fortune to many people and then utterly ruins them.
Croesus was infuriated and promptly dismissed Solon as a doddering old fool.
Or, not. Because according to Herodotus, Solon was right all along. He tells us that not long thereafter, Croesus lost a son in an accident and then had his reign ended when Cyrus the Great conquered Lydia and annexed it to the Persian Empire.
It bears noting that Solon isn’t just talking about our modern notion of success. He speaks ofeudaemonia, more accurately translated as fortune or happiness. That said, Marc and I feel that this story says something valuable about the measure of success and the weight we give to the various highs, lows and lulls that make up our existence. Solon’s message could be distilled down to this:
1. All things must pass: As Solon tells us, the wheel of fortune keeps turning. We can make the most of each Great moment but should also recognise its transitory nature. The lows work the same way. Think about it: in those moments when you’re feeling most successful, how much do all your previous failings, heartbreaks and bad times really matter? Both success and failure will strike, and both are transient.
2. Failure is necessary: When Solon cites Tellus, Cleobis and Biton as being the most fortunate people, he doesn’t mean that he thinks they’re happy in the afterlife. Simply, that a true assessment of success is only possible once you can factor an entire lifetime into the equation. The data we need to draw conclusions includes all the successes, failures and lulls of our lives. So ultimately, we shouldn’t flog ourselves for our failures, as these are as necessary and inevitable as our successes. You can’t have an average without both the highs and the lows.
3. Finish Strong: Life is full of examples of people who had awesome lives only to suffer tragic reversals, and vice versa.
My dad was a celebrated restorer. His work is on display in the Vatican and he drew the admiration of experts, statesmen and even an Emperor. Yet he lost his entire fortune and spent his final years in hardship and ill health, ultimately descending into madness. It’s doubtful that, in his final days, he would have found much solace in his prior success.
My mother, on the other hand, struggled to even keep the lights on while I was a kid, depriving herself of all pleasures so I could have as many opportunities as possible. Now, in her sixties, after toiling for decades, her business is thriving and she can enjoy a Great lifestyle. If she’s lucky, her success will secure the remainder of her life. If so, wouldn’t her final experience of success matter more than her prior failures?
As Solon says, only the dead are immune to the wheel of fortune. We will all experience reversals in our life, in both directions — it’s only a matter of time. So what really matters is where you are when the dial stops.
4. You’re not late for anything: If the end goal is to feel like we’ve lived a successful life (whatever our own notion of success may be) does it really matter how soon we get there?
Ultimately, there’s only one appointment we’re all certain of. And we know for sure that we won’t be late for it. So, sure, let’s enjoy every Great moment in our lives, but also, let’s listen to Solon and keep our eye on the real prize — what really matters is the shape we’re in when we cross the finish line.
[This post was originally published on The Great Everything. If you enjoyed it, please recommend this article and check out the blog!]