A keynote I gave to the Golden Key National Honor Society UF Chapter in 2007.
I was asked here this evening to offer some advice about success. The thing of it is, planning for the success itself is easy. It’s pleasant to look forward to prosperity, respect, advancement. What’s hard is accepting, and even planning for, the setbacks and failures that are inevitably part of any well-lived life. If success is the opposite of failure, then is the key to success avoiding failure? How do you avoid failure? The answer: set very low expectations for yourself. Then you’ll find it easy to succeed and never fail. For example, I’ve set myself the goal of going home this evening and watching a rerun of The Simpsons. But, you may well point out, the Simpsons is on at 7:30 and this banquet may not end in time. But my friends, I TIVO’ed it. I’m going to watch it. Then I’m going to check it off my to-do list and sleep the sleep of the easily satisfied.
If I fill my weekly schedule with similar items, by Friday I’ll have checked off a long list of mundane and pointless tasks and feel ever-so accomplished and successful. I might similarly design a whole life in which my ladder to success is more of a gentle slope dotted with modest, easily reached milestones: have job most of the time, live in enclosed structure with indoor plumbing, enjoy relationship with not entirely repulsive significant other who is firmly resigned to the fact that I’m the best she can get.
Not the stuff of great novels, but entirely within my grasp. Not so bad, could certainly be worse. If this vision of a modest, easily-achieved, not entirely objectionable life doesn’t fire your imagination, ask yourself why. Why do we seek a life of challenge? Why flirt with risk? Why do we get inspired by quotes like the one from Helen Keller, who said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”? Is it ego? Do we all have an inner Napoleon or perhaps an inner Madonna who craves conquest and fame? Or is it something we needn’t judge so harshly? Is our ambition to succeed something that is good, not only for ourselves but for the world?
I think of the stories we tell ourselves and each other for inspiration. Rarely are they stories of prudence, modesty, and settling for what is practical. The great stories are always of heroes daring the impossible, or possibly impossible, enduring hardship and humiliation, growing and adapting with creativity and humor, but never, never giving up. Those are the stories we cherish. My friends, each of us is living a story, and I urge you to think about what sort of story you are living. Above all, ask yourself, am I the hero of my own life story?
I believe we all have a right to see ourselves as the heroes of our own life stories. Not the victim of circumstance, not a comic side character, not a villain waiting to be exposed, but the hero. When you think that way, you can remember that in every hero story, there are parts where the hero struggles: Cinderella sitting among the ashes, humiliated, alone, her true worth unrecognized. And you need that part of the story to be there. If the story went: Cinderella was popular, rich, and never had any problems, and then she met a prince and lived happily ever after—well, nobody wants to watch that movie! You might want to live it. But then again, deep down, no you wouldn’t. It’s the struggle that makes the success mean something. It’s the essential part of the story.
When a friend of mine was going through a severe illness, I shared this idea with her, and asked her to write the story of her life, but with her as the hero, not the victim. I wanted her to see that if you only look at the chapter in which the awful stuff is happening, you might see it as just an ugly, sad story of a victim suffering. She was living that chapter then, and you can imagine she felt like a victim. She felt like a failure. She asked “Why me?” as anyone would. But writing is wonderful therapy, and this time she rewrote her story, so that the horrible chapter she was going through—her body failing her, her husband leaving her, etc.—was part of a larger whole—a story of which she was the hero and, indeed, the author, or perhaps co-author.
I knew something interesting was happening when she asked if she could make the story an allegory, like a fable. I said sure. Then she said, and I quote, “Can I be a fairy princess?” Now, this is a high-powered executive, who lives in suits and leads a large organization. I knew something interesting was happening. When I read her story, it was funny and touching, but nearly half of it was very detailed descriptions of what she, as a fairy princess, would be wearing. I said, “This is mostly costume changes! What about the important stuff?”
To which she replied, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff!”
But there was also a plot, and though the events were the same, it had gone from the story of a victim suffering, to that of a hero struggling. That is the key difference. As I said, every great story has setbacks, heartaches, periods of great suffering. We put up with them because we know that at the end of the tale, those dark chapters lead to the eventual successes and without them, the hero’s successes wouldn’t mean anything.
When you are facing one of the dark chapters of your own life–and unless you set consistently low expectations for yourself, you will have dark chapters–remember that you have the choice, to see that episode as one of a victim suffering meaninglessly, or a hero struggling meaningfully and creatively in the midst of a noble quest. Have the courage to look at your so-called failures and setbacks and decide for yourself what they mean in the context of the larger story, a story of which you are the hero and the co-author. Then you can deal with those dark chapters in a way that respects your deepest values and your inner nobility.
I realize that what I’ve given you is advice on how to look at failure, when I was asked here to give you advice on success. So let me conclude with some advice on how to handle success, which I learned from my friend who said, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff.” My advice to you is, when success comes, as it will for all of you, people will want to take your picture, so make sure you look good. Iron your clothes, get your hair done, maybe get some of those tooth-whitening strips. Because people will look at the person in that picture, and they’ll think about your story, and then they’ll think about their own stories. Your story can inspire others to make their own stories great, even people you never meet. So that’s my advice on success: don’t just achieve it; achieve it with style. The hero of your story deserves nothing less.