Perpetual Self-Controntation

"We live in perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value. And the tricky thing, I'd say, about these two sides of our nature is they work by different logics."

~ David Brooks

The Preparation for Those Moments is Your Life

"If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. There are very very very few people who win gold at the Olympics. And if you say, ‘if I don’t win gold then I’m a failure or I’ve let somebody down or something...’

What if you win a silver? What if you win a bronze? What if you come fourth? What if your binding comes apart?

What if all of those millions of things that happen in life happen...

Only a few people that go there are going to win gold. And it’s the same in some degree I think in commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk it is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life.

And you need to honour the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life...

The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life."

~ Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut 

See also: 

  • Hadfield, C. (2013). An astronaut's guide to life on Earth.
  • Adams, S. (2013). How to fail at almost everything and still win big: Kind of the story of my life. (systems over goals)

Keep Yanking

Excerpt from How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams:

The success of Dilbert is mostly a story of luck. But I did make it easier for luck to find me, and I was thoroughly prepared when it did. Luck won't give you a strategy or a system—you have to do that part yourself.

I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn't ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.

The Benefits of Failure

"Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality."

~ J.K. Rowling, from "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,"Harvard Gazette, June 5, 2008

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.


Sticking with Your Future

"We tried to predict which cadets would stay in military training and which would drop out. We went to the National Spelling Bee and tried to predict which children would advance farthest in competition. We studied rookie teachers working in really tough neighborhoods, asking which teachers are still going to be here in teaching by the end of the school year, and of those, who will be the most effective at improving learning outcomes for their students? We partnered with private companies, asking, which of these salespeople is going to keep their jobs? And who's going to earn the most money?

In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't I.Q. 

It was grit.

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."

~ Angela Lee Duckworth

See also:



It Must Ensue

It Must Ensue

"Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it."

~ Viktor Frankl

Unsung Courage

Nicolson’s Café was a first floor restaurant on the corner of Nicolson and Drummond Street famous for being the location where J.K. Rowling worked on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Excerpt from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte:

There are two possibilities, perhaps we can call them necessities, for keeping the marriage with work alive through the difficult years of childbearing and child rearing. The first is to reimagine the way we have named our work and defined its success. We may find that our priorities have been erased and redrawn by a birth or an adoption; that we don't care for the corporate world's priorities anymore and that mothering or indeed fathering is now our central work.

We may come to the reimagination of our work through the gladly received, genuine revelations of parenting or especially for women, with difficulty, through a rueful acceptance that the months or years with a child have taken us off the career track and that the sacrifices needed to get back on that moving stair are not worth what it would take. Even if we find that circumstances allow us both to be a good parent and to follow a brilliant career, the moral basis of the brilliant career hinges on not neglecting or abandoning our children at crucial times in their growing, and demands that we reexamine the basis of our marriage with work and many of the outer rewards of prestige we demanded up to the moment we became parents. 

The second necessity is to find a rhythm, often with the help of our partner or our family or our friends that enables us to make short visits to that kingdom of silence and creativity. These short visits on a regular, rhythmical basis may not further the work very much in the early days, but they are essential to keeping it alive in the heart and mind of the struggling parent until time begins to open up as the child grows and goes off to school. As this window begins to widen and allow fresh air into the life of the besieged parent, the work also slowly begins to resuscitate itself and come back to life. Our vocation starts to pick its feet out of the mud and move onto higher, drier ground. 

J.K. Rowling famously wrote large portions of the first Harry Potter book in the midst of this caked, slow-moving, mud-walking, desperate parent stage. "There was a point where I really felt I had 'penniless divorcée, lone parent' tattooed on my head," she said in one interview (Seaton, 2001). Living alone with her infant daughter, Jessica, in an unheated Edinburgh flat, she would trudge through the streets wheeling Jessica to a local café and snatch moments at her writing between feeding and comforting her child. It's a help to know that Rowling felt a general hopelessness during much of that time, and a further encouragement to know that she kept on moving through the mud, kept on writing despite her quiet, private despair. 

The café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling wrote now has a small plaque on the wall outside to explain who sat there with such private, unsung courage. Most likely the place in which we sit and struggle to bring our work back to life will have nothing to commemorate it except a little window in our own memory that opens onto the small stage on which we appeared during difficult times. 

Perhaps each of us should go back with actual plaques and place them in cafés, on walls or in office cubicles with little notes of private courage for the inspiration of others. "This is where I kept my faith alive during very dark days," "This is where I found the courage to leave my marriage," or "This is where I realized that I couldn't have everything I wanted and so felt the freedom to request what I needed." Such puzzling, intriguing and inspirational signs everywhere might bring us to an understanding of the constant enacted dramas occurring around us. How every chair and every corner holds a possibility for redemption. The plaques that said things such as "This is the table where I gave up on my ideals and took the very large bribe" would be equally instructive for the reader. 

Be Fully Awake to Everything

Excerpt of a letter written to a teenaged Jackson Pollock by his father, from American letters, 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock & Family:

Portrait of Jackson Pollock, ca. 1928Well it has been some time since I received your fine letter. It makes me a bit proud and swelled up to get letters from five young fellows by the names of Charles, Mart, Frank, Sande, and Jack. The letters are so full of life, interest, ambition, and good fellowship. It fills my old heart with gladness and makes me feel “Bully.” Well Jack I was glad to learn how you felt about your summer’s work & your coming school year. The secret of success is concentrating interest in life, interest in sports and good times, interest in your studies, interest in your fellow students, interest in the small things of nature, insects, birds, flowers, leaves, etc. In other words to be fully awake to everything about you & the more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.

I think your philosophy on religion is okay. I think every person should think, act & believe according to the dictates of his own conscience without too much pressure from the outside. I too think there is a higher power, a supreme force, a governor, a something that controls the universe. What it is & in what form I do not know. It may be that our intellect or spirit exists in space in some other form after it parts from this body. Nothing is impossible and we know that nothing is destroyed, it only changes chemically. We burn up a house and its contents, we change the form but the same elements exist; gas, vapor, ashes. They are all there just the same.

Read the rest of the letter here...

More Like the Mona Lisa than Everything Else

More Like the Mona Lisa than Everything Else

"We tend to explain success and failure is by looking at the attributes of the thing or the person that succeeded or failed. And what I argue – and the Mona Lisa is just a way of illustrating this general argument – is that these explanations are actually vacuous, right? They're logically circular."

~ Duncan Watts

You Don't Get Anything for Being a Poet Now

The Artist Must Incline His Head Just So
by Matthew Zapruder

Often I have an idea and say it immediately.
If people praise me I wear the world
shyly on top of my head.
At times I'm compelled
like a fever to float
without any distinctions,
a sea of tin cans, love letters and greed.
The world is good for my pleasure and consumption.
I admire it totally, it stands
like a mountain inside and outside me.
Some art may be good, some dishonest.
There's no pressing need for conscription or liberty,
though a carful of people rides down the highway
too fast, clouded in song.
My lack of compassion astounds me,
and must not come to know itself.
It's true, I've never done anything
quite like striking you across the face.
There is of course the question of fate,
and whether it can be angered.
Example: when not overpowered by grief
there are proper and improper ways to mourn.
In such cases my gestures are shadows
cast far from myself
by one who crawls through the library,
touching the books that she touched.
I have dream after dream and forget each one.

Excerpt from Interview With Writer Matthew Zapruder from Words with Writers (Sep. 25, 2011):

I tell my students that we’re all in it together. We all have to do the same stuff, which is to keep struggling and trying out things. Eventually, something catches and we have to be honest with ourselves, forgiving of ourselves, but also work really hard.

Remember that poets are part of a holy tribe. Our egotistical and individual need to be praised is not more important than the greater good of writing poems, and being part of this ancient tradition of being the self-designated lucid dreamers of society. Nobody gives a [cuss] who wins what prize, everybody forgets who won about five minutes later, nobody gets any money from being a poet, nobody gets any real praise, and you turn to dust just like everybody else, but along the way you get to be a poet. You get to be a member of this tribe. That’s what you get.

If you’re ready for that, you want that, and that’s your fate, then you are welcome to be part of it. Nobody can tell anybody they can’t be part of it. The dead will take care of you. You future readers will love you long after you’re gone, but you don’t get anything for being a poet now. None of that matters when you’re sitting at your desk writing a poem. You have to find a way to live like a decent person.

A Reliable Path to the Good Life

Excerpt from "What if the Secret to Success Is Failture?" by Paul Tough, The New York Times, September 14, 2011:

[Martin] Seligman and [Christopher] Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale? 

Read the entire article here...

On Your Way to Wonderful

"It's okay to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you're going to have to pass through all right, and when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you're gonna go."

~ Bill Withers, from “Still Bill: Documenting a Soul Icon,” All Things Considered (March 4, 2010)

The Ability to Project an Image of Success

Excerpt from “Youtopia and the Bubble of American Egos,” by Theo Horesh, Beyond Growth (Aug. 26, 2009):

What happens when a whole society of people learns to project an image of success and capability that few members of that society actually possess? Let us create for ourselves an imaginary world—we’ll call it Youtopia—and explore what might happen there…

In a socially mobile society like that of the US, in which individuals craft their own lives for themselves and must regularly recreate their own social worlds as they move from place to place and from one social class to another, the ability to project an image of success and capability can mean the difference between success and failure in almost any endeavor. So let us travel to Youtopia and see what happens when all of us do this?

First of all, it becomes difficult to distinguish who is actually successful and capable on Youtopia. For everyone will appear successful and capable whether or not he or she really is. And while new indicators of success and capability might be discovered, those indicators would be quickly learned by others on YouTopia, for if everyone possessed the ability to project an image of success and capability, whatever the indicators of success and capability were, they would learn them.


No Expectations of Success Now

Solving the Puzzle
by Stephen Dunn, from Loosestrife

Loosestrife: poems I couldn’t make all the pieces fit,
So I threw one away.

No expectations of success now,
None of that worry.

The remaining pieces seemed
to seek their companions.
A design appeared.

I could see the connection
Between the overgrown path
And the dark castle on the hill.

Something in the middle, though,
was missing.

It would have been important once.
I wouldn’t have been able to sleep
without it.

[Spotted on Jonathan Carroll’s blog 8.13.09]

Our Ideas of Success

“We are highly open to suggestion. So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t in fact what you wanted all along.”

Alain de Botton, from“A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,”  TED Talks, July 2009

[Thanks Kit!]


Redefining Success

A Little More About Me

From A Little More About Me, by Pam Houston:

“I am walking along Muir Beach, twenty miles north of San Francisco, with my friend the poet Jane Hirshfield. It is a windy day, sunny and cold, the sea full of memory of a storm that blew through last night.

My friendship with Jane is two years and a few dozen beach walks, horseback rides, and mud baths old. The relationship is deeply successful, like, she would say, the relationship between these huge dark rocks and the silver waves that crash all around them. I bring Jane my wild tales of failed love and adventure, my passion and spontaneity, my questions about how to live my life. She meets these with hard-won wisdom as rich and as peaceful as the pear trees in her garden, a wisdom gained from years of sitting on a small pillow in a huge Buddhist monastery, a calm I can only covet while my life tosses itself from storm to storm.

When I moved to San Francisco, I was running, in the same moment both toward and away. Away from a life that had become stale and repetitive, away from a place where when I said ‘creative writing’ everyone thought I meant calligraphy, away from a desert landscape that I loved more deeply than any I had loved before. What I ran toward was less certain: a big city, a new love, an imagined community of artists, the Pacific Ocean, organic vegetables, and exotic food.

But the love went bad and the ocean was frigid, and in less than a year in the land of milk and honey I was stalked, sued, threatened, abandoned, and mugged, twice. For the first time in my life I was afraid to go home at night, and I found myself alone as I had never been, in the way we never are until we are alone in the midst of five million people. it was from that city-solitude I began the tough work of reinventing my life, and now each talk with Jane clears a little more fog away.

Today we are talking about redefining success. I am telling her about my first notion of success, which came from my parents and involved country clubs, clothing, and cars. As I became and adult I replaced that list with a list of my own, no less arbitrary: a Ph.D., a book of short stories, a place on a best-seller list, a film.

But now I am coming to the understanding that success has less to do with the accumulation of things and more to do with the accumulation of moments, and that creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable, and seeing how many of those I can string together in a line."

[Found on Jonathan Carroll’s blog]

A Skill You'll Actually Get To Use

Excerpt from What Now? by Ann Patchett from an essay based on the commencement address she gave at Sarah Lawrence in May 2006:

what_now In a world that is flooded with children's leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following. Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it's one that you'll actually get to use on a daily basis. It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we're being prepared for.

No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position. You're busy and so you ask somebody to bring the water to table four. Someone else is busy and so you clear the dirty plates from table twelve. You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help.

It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren't really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups—you're ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody's ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It's what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.