In Search of Wisdom: Where does success live?

Published in: NepalNews.com

“Presented at an interaction program organized by Noble Initiative for Community Empowerment, and Knowledge Net”

JANUARY 31, 2009, WASHINGTON DC, USA

What is success? Where does it live? How can it be found? Why are we concerned about it? These are some of the key concerns of humans from time immemorial. Texts written millennia ago gave much importance to this subject and it remains as relevant today. Despite so much cumulative progress made by humans, we often find ourselves in a rat race with no end in sight, and our hard work does not seem to lead to desired end. Yet some people seem to find success with relative ease! This article explores definition, key attributes, and a pathway to success in a hope to reveal why some people are more successful than the others.

What is Success?

Success could mean many things to many people. The commonality of all is in that it is associated with some form of goal set by individuals and their social environment. Owning a hut may be success to some, while for others it may require a mansion. For others with completely different set of goals, criteria for success may range from being included in a team to winning a medal in Olympics. Even achieving one goal may lead the person to set a bigger goal, and the inability to reach the latter may be taken as a failure. This confuses us and makes us run after all sorts of likely or unlikely places for success. Allowing for myriads of possibilities, I write what success means to me.

Success is a loosely defined measure of accomplishments in reference to desires and expectations. Success, therefore, means “achievement” and failure means “non-achievement” in relation to what was expected. A person is successful if he or she achieved the result as expected. Therefore, a success is not the signifier of the absolute state of our deed, wealth, position, reputation, or power but of our achievement in relation to what is believed to be normal for us in the context of our surroundings. If the expectation is that I would be an average student in the class and if I indeed become an average, I am a success. If I emerge among the top five students, I am a better success. This remains true even in the absence of a numeric scale to measure success; humans are very good in inventing imaginary scales! Therefore, the secret to success is to meet or beat expectations, whether they are of our own or that of others.

Then there are two types of successes – comparative and objective. A comparative success is an achievement made in relation to others such as being first in the class. This is often associated with establishing a social status. An objective success is associated with personal growth and meeting of goals and objectives. Siddhartha became Buddha not by constantly doing better than his peers but by renouncing comparative route and pursuing his own vision to the end.

Where does success live?

Since success appears to be concentrated disproportionately in the centre and less in the margin of the society, it begs some investigation. How do environment (surrounding, friends, neighborhood), social-demography (gender, age, caste, class), living-condition (money, housing, family size), academic-background (higher degree, good school, educated parents), intentions (awareness, vision, goal), intensity (motivation, action, perseverance), and incidence (early-experience, sudden-discovery, luck, timing) play role in our success? When do people of humble beginnings achieve great feat? These questions are of interest to our inquest.

Some people seem to cross great barriers to reach success. Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Mandela became inter-generational world icons. Jim Carey, Celine Dion, and Shania Twain became famous contemporary artists. John Carnegie, Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffet achieved riches. All from humble beginnings! They are a living proof that all adversities fall short in front of dream, vision, intensity of actions, and continuously creative thinking and self-learning. No book or university could have made these people the way they are.

Swami Vivekananda sums up the secret to success of these people in a few sentences. “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success. That is the way great figures are produced.”

I can do nothing but to concur with Vivekananda. The only way a person can fulfill his or her vision is through passion, persistence, and devotion. As much as it is important to set our visions and plunge into actions with passion and persistence, it is also important to critically analyze our successes and failures. Such inquiry would let us understand our strengths and weaknesses, and reveal what opportunities and threats that lie ahead. As our actions start producing results, we should pay close attention to them and discover the areas where we have made the most improvements and build our foundations with those strengths. Given that we have a goal to achieve, the areas we are weak can be covered by delegating them to suitable others.

Compromising on your vision simply because you do not yourself have all the required traits to plan or execute properly is often a poor choice. It is perfectly desirable to get things done from those who are better than you. Chinese philosopher Confucius imparts a good wisdom and complements these ideas in saying, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

A glance into the lives of people who reached great success from humble beginning and what Vivekananda advised lead me to conclude that “success lives in the confluence of intention, intensity, and incidence.” The intention is the vision that leads to formulation of achievable goals. It is creative energy that makes us spend more time in initiating than in reacting. And our values determine the reach-and-clarity of our vision and the intensity-and-flow of psychological energy that propel us from within. The intensity is the amount of passion poured into the actions taken to achieve the goals. The very same passion should lead to greater awareness, inquiries, discoveries, and improvements. And incidence is the positive impetus built by timing, early-successes, incidental-encounters, and factors beyond us!

How can it be found?

The most difficult part of being successful is in knowing where the success lives. Once you know it, finding it is reasonably simple. You will find that there is not extraordinary magic behind most successes. A multiplicative effect of a series of ordinary differentiators can lead a person to heights of success. Successful people accomplish a series of small achievements in every step of their way and strive to continuously self-improve, whereas most people are a mixed bag of achievements and non-achievements. This may be better explained through an example.

Imagine that there were five people born equal and no one came out of the womb holding achievements on their hands. They had to live a life of ten thousand steps, each step taking them higher and higher up on a mountain. They had equal caliber, intellect, and opportunity for taking those ten thousand steps. And consider each of these steps represented something they do; fetch the water, plant the paddies, herd the cattle, kill the flies, run the trails, wash the clothes, cook the food, talk to friends, read the books, write a program, sell the products, and so on. Each of those steps came with an expectation placed on them. Imagine that the average size of those steps is 1m – call it a measure of success. Because the height of each step was a fuzzy measure and never exact, they had a safe wiggle room to slightly skimp on those steps or to stretch a bit. And all five people took the same first step. If the first person always chose to make his next step 0.999 of the earlier one (lethargic), the second took 0.999m steps every time (below-normal), the third took 1.000m steps (normal), the fourth took 1.001m steps (above-normal), and the fifth did 1.001 times better than his own last step (performer). Then after the ten thousand steps, these people would have climbed 1000m, 9990m, 10,000m, 10,010m, and 22million meters respectively. The difference between the 1m and 1.001m was an unnoticeable 1mm but its effect was huge. Therefore, continuous self-improvements made by a tiny factor every steps of the way can lead to enormous success over the lifetime of a person.

The moral of this example is threefold. First, people seeking success should spend more time on initiating than in reacting and responding. They should strive to leave a unique mark in every endeavor they do. Second, marginal differentiators can lead to profound win in the long run. An athlete just a notch better than others may win a gold medal while an almost as good competitor may not win any medal. A product a notch better than another often captures disproportionately higher share of the market because market often over-rewards the achievers and under-rewards the rest. Third, we get further ahead through continuous self-improvement than by doing better than the next person. Beware! Being first in the class simply amounts to be better than the next person not the continuous self-improvement! Therefore, don’t worry for you are the last in the class today but know whether you are continuously improving or not, compared to yourself.

Think of a high school student who discovers her athleticism by running the fourth fastest in her class. Encouraged, she practices regularly, beating her own records. Doing that she goes on winning the race at her school, then in higher level of competitions until she reaches the fullest of her capabilities, which may very well be an Olympic gold medal – the highest possible achievement! Therefore, the greatest of all secrets to success is in practicing continuous self-improvement in the things we do repeatedly in life. And the word continuous means that striving for improvement should be our second nature, or habit.

Self-improvement is necessary not only in the technical and quantitative space but also in qualitative space and human relations. Successes in most fields require collaboration of many people. Therefore, abilities to impart positive image, make others feel important, being considerate of others, and praising good traits of others can bear much value in successes of larger magnitude. The easy path of dwelling much on mining the negatives on others is detrimental to our success. Only positive attitude wins.

It is, however, easy to overlook the value of self-improvement in the first glance. In the surface it looks as if we quickly reach a point of maximum improvement in anything we do. This happens because we often view improvements as a single tracked railway line and imprison our thinking with rules and norms. A passionate and free mind, however, will not be held hostage by the end of the single tracked line, but it will see previously un-thought-of possibilities. Such minds stumble upon explosion of inventions. This process makes us discover beyond what we had known from the past and seek new ways of doing things and new things to do.

“If Bears were Bees,
They would build their nests at the bottom of the trees,
And that being so (if the Bees were Bears),
We should not have to climb up all these stairs.” 
– Winnie-the-Pooh

In times of anxiety and stress, we do not take a pause from everything else to think of new possibilities, discover our latent potentials, and invent ways to overcome existing challenges. This is because we often over-depend on our knowledge.

Knowledge is the sum total of our past information, beliefs, values, and cultural conditionings. It has infinite utilities, and we could expand our thinking sphere and ability to enter into ever-deeper areas of understandings in the process of acquiring it. Consequently, knowledge is prized as the best of all commodities a human can possess. Yet, the very same knowledge can also become an inhibitor of learning. Knowledge is like a light shining upon us from one side and creating a shadow – the prejudice and tunnel-vision – on the other side. Knowledge, therefore, has the power to predispose us to stereotypical thinking and we may see no way out of our present condition. In fact knowledge is solely responsible for creating an attachment with the familiar and the fear of the unknown, which are collectively the greatest inhibitors of our success.

Only when we can free ourselves from the biases we carry from our past understandings and beliefs, the energy of creativity and inventiveness bursts from within us. A learning and inventive mind is aware, inquisitive, sensitive, swift-in-action, and patient for results. It is calm and pays attentions to subtle changes in the environment, people, relations, and systems. Creativity is simply an attitude or an approach. Once we shift ourselves from a pessimist frame of mind to an optimist one, we involuntarily think on how something can be done rather than finding why it can’t be done.

Lastly, we must understand our values and be guided by them to be successful. Values represent the emotionalized truths built in our mind. People can, therefore, even give up their lives to uphold their values. Our values feed the psychological energy that is needed for us to be devoted to a cause. The intensity of that energy determines how strong, aware, receptive, and intent we are to our cause. When we become disinterested in a cause it is often because our inner values do not coincide with the values embodied in the cause. On the contrary, no ridicule, prosecution, and death can deter us if we are pursuing something that embodies our endeared values. Therefore, whether to be social entrepreneur or a business entrepreneur should be determined by looking inside our inner values. If we seek success for the purpose of upholding our values, positive results come sooner and easier, and success becomes our reality.

Why should we have success?

Being successful is not sufficient in life. We may have set goals for ourselves and reach them with great speed, but the ultimate search of a human mind is always “happiness”. In the absence of happiness, all achievements amount to very little. Therefore, a thoughtful human should not set his or her goal inspired by lesser things like big mansion, much money in the bank, or looking better than “her”. A person may make more and more money over time without being happy.

Often time people equate success with riches. However, our objective in life should not only be to keep ourselves away from poverty, but also from the ills of the riches. There can be poverty in riches as well. Buddha chose material poverty to be rich in something immaterial. Yet it is so tempting to choose the opposite path. Success would also lead to happiness if the immaterial realm were also factored in the pursuit of success. It is said that those people whose success is inspired by serving a purpose higher than serving the self find tremendous joy in whatever they do. Even scientific studies have concluded that money buys you happiness but only if you give it away!

Warren Buffet achieved riches, yet seemingly not for the same reasons as others as he is giving his wealth away to those who do not have. He lives humbly and is warning against the rise of “dynastic wealth.” He seems to have figured that there is a higher end beyond the end of the single track. He tells us that we have responsibility towards those whose early “incidence” happened to be an encounter of poverty, neglect, and rejection. We have especial responsibility towards fair and equitable providence of education, care, and encouragement in society.

Conclusions

Success lives in the confluence of intention, intensity, and incidence. To achieve success, we should free ourselves from prejudices and be sensitive and aware about our inner-self and our environment. Such awareness gives rise to new ideas and visions. Once we embrace our vision as part of our life, we start thinking, dreaming, and listening to everything that relates to it. Once learning, thinking, and inventing becomes our habit, we start discovering and utilizing the positive sides of everything and everyone, we become continuously self-improving, and success follows our footsteps.

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