Thursday, August 6, 2015


As someone who has never been particularly ambitious, I occasionally think about what motivates the people who do end up becoming notably successful at one thing or another. Some may say that most unsuccessful people simply don't have what it takes: perhaps they're too disorganized, too stupid, too lazy or, more charitably, too disadvantaged, to accomplish much of anything. Others may view those who succeed as having special talents. Some may chalk it all up to luck. I prefer to look closely at those who are thought of as successful and examine what specifically motivated them, because I think this provides a clearer picture of both the individuals and the cultures in which they live.

Speaking anecdotally, it appears that most successful people work very hard before receiving recognition. People such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Vincent van Gogh all worked extremely hard throughout their careers. Those who aren't quite so industrious may work more deliberately and produce successful results over many years, for example Emily Dickinson and Charles Darwin. The definition of success in the arts and sciences is somewhat more variable than it is in commerce. One may become famous posthumously like Vermeer or Mendel, and some excellent art has probably already been lost forever without ever being appreciated. In our age commerce triumphs, and the very rich often acquire a cultural stature that far exceeds the importance of their accomplishments. How else can you explain the current ascent of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential polls? Trump has "buffoon" written all over him, yet he is giving top Republican contenders such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker a run for their money.

As you might expect, I tend to see the drive toward success as having evolutionary roots. Competition has historically been the province of males, who are directly or indirectly and consciously or unconsciously attempting to attract mates, produce offspring and protect them. High social status draws women like a magnet, and attractive young women still put up with the likes of old sexist geezers such as Hugh Hefner, who, I am sorry to say, remains a role model for millions of men. Women are equally interested in procreation, but biology has placed them in a different strategic position in which they must concentrate on the actual details of bearing and raising children, a situation which can be facilitated with a powerful husband. The recent cultural emphasis on gender equality has complicated the landscape in which both males and females operate, but men still tend to be more competitive than women, and women are still more interested than men in creating and maintaining safe environments that are suitable for raising children, whether they have children or not. Gender flexibility may have some biological justification, but there must be limits to that flexibility if populations are to reproduce.

The male idea of success can be seen in men's desire to compete in sports, games and at work. Being rich usually does the trick for attracting women, especially in the U.S. I have always found the case of Jacqueline Kennedy instructive. Here you had an upper-class, well-educated, attractive and intelligent woman who, in my opinion, married down for both John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. Though he had some good qualities and eventually the high status of being president of the U.S., Kennedy was the son of a rather crass and unpleasant social climber and Wall Street crook. Onassis was a crude Greek ship owner who clearly had nothing to offer Jackie besides money. Whether they think about it this way or not, men with lots of money are generally going to have better reproductive options than paupers, with a better pick of the lot than most others.

The female idea of success can be seen in childrearing and the formation of cohesive communities. Having an enriched, safe environment with lots of support provides optimal conditions for raising children. Also having the right sort of men around for protection helps, and this may partly explain why women are often attracted to risk-taking men, who otherwise might seem foolish or irresponsible. Women themselves, I find, are comparatively risk-averse and would usually rather delegate that role to men. This is probably borne out in mortality statistics, which consistently show women outliving men. Basically, from an evolutionary standpoint, having some guy die instead of you and your children is a pretty good deal. And men are accommodating anyway: they like being heroes, even at great personal cost.

Observer that I am, I enjoy seeing lives as a whole, and how, over a period of many years what once seemed like a special talent that sprang from nowhere years later looks like a rather pathetic monomania from which a person can't escape. Bob Dylan is a good example of this. Here you have one of the best pop lyricists ever, a lousy voice and passable instrumentation. He worked very hard and everything gelled for him in the early 1960's, but it might easily have turned out quite differently. He happened to be a talented writer who was in the right place at the right time, but writing was apparently not his main interest: he preferred performing in front of live audiences. Now, fifty years later, most of his lyrics are forgettable, but he is still on tour as an aged rock star, stuck in a formula from which a more creative person might have extracted himself. Similarly, I fail to see the point of how billionaires choose to live. Even one of the most likable, Warren Buffett, seems crazed: he's still working at age 84 with a net worth of $72 billion. Perhaps he has spent his life trying to prove that Harvard Business School was wrong to turn him down in 1950.

Lifelong obsessions can also be found in the arts. Vincent van Gogh, I think, expressed loneliness in many of his paintings. He had a rather difficult personality and couldn't get along with anyone for an extended period. Yet he yearned for companionship, and this appears in his painting of his bedroom in Arles, which shows everything in pairs, as if two people lived in it. His obsession, you might say in this instance, was the absence of a mate. Many artists and writers become typecast early in their careers, like villains in Westerns. They may end up spending their lives producing the genre that brought them success initially well after it serves any artistic purpose to them. In the arts, it is easiest to succeed with a brand, because the truth is that consumers of art don't really like much change. Painters and writers do this frequently: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Stephen King, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, for example.

It is important to recognize that many of the people who have been successful have had net negative effects on mankind. Besides all of the deaths caused by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, there is the global pollution caused by successful industrialists, and many wars can be attributed to religious leaders from across the centuries. Even when you look at advances in agricultural and medical technologies, you have to wonder whether anyone considered the desirability of the unchecked population growth that ensued. The world population has grown from just one billion when our house was built two hundred years ago to more than seven billion today. To some extent today's refugees are the product of yesterday's technological and industrial successes.

I'm not saying that there aren't any breathtaking artistic, technological or conceptual achievements, but rather that when they occur they must be seen in context, and one person's success doesn't imply someone else's failure. Subliminal drives are what produce success, and those drives exist more or less in everyone. For those who are happy living in their own skin, being unsuccessful may at the most fundamental level mean little more than not having the most attractive husband or wife.

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