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"The sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech." - Lao Tzu

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March 5, 2009

Success?

I looked up the word to find out if I was as far off base as I feel I am. The definition that comes closest to my thoughts recently is this: “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.” Too often we focus on the wealth portion of this statement. Wealth is simple to understand, it’s the common medium of exchange between all sectors of society and can usually be applied to achieve position, honors and the like. As to the rest of the definition however, it would seem that my thoughts mostly coincide.

Universally, as a society and as individuals, we all seem to agree that someone who has made money, and sometimes only inherited money, is successful. We look at someone with a big house and a nice car as having achieved beyond their peers.

I started thinking about this when my sister asked me why I wasn’t successful. I asked what she meant and she replied that I didn’t have a lot of money despite being among the best and brightest. In her eyes my talents should have translated into wealth or possessions. My immediate response was this, “The accumulation of wealth was never my goal.” Personally, I never judged success by wealth.

“If money is all that you love, then that's what you'll receive.” – Princess Leia

I have been working with a different gauge for some time and I don’t believe I have ever clearly related that here. I tend to follow this broader and vaguer definition, “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors.” I just never felt that wealth, position or honors was enough. I mean personally I don’t drag my ego into my estimations of success. If you’ve read many of these columns, you know my personal evaluation of my success is about how green I have become, but I am rather flexible when evaluating others. What is it you seek? How do you become a better you? What do you want to reflect back on in 5, 10, 30 years?

I wanted to say something innovative here and look at the subject from a different point of view, so I asked myself whom I consider to be successful. I came up with a decent list and I think if you distill it, the truth is in there. Who are your heroes and why? What did they ever do? Is Gates your hero? Buffett? Pickins? The thing about rich people is that they almost always do something with their money, for better or worse, which brings me full circle back to my first paragraph. I think you’ll notice as I did that most of my heroes died penniless.

Here are a few examples in no particular order:

Martin Luther King Jr.
Malcolm X
Mahatma Gandhi
Einstein
Kepler
Galileo
Charlie Parker
Van Gogh
Nietzsche
Hemmingway
Faulkner
Kelly Slater
Twain
Shaka Zulu

I leave you with a question and a song. The question: What makes your heroes heroic to you and do you live up to that same standard? The song: a traditional Zulu praise song, English translation by Ezekiel Mphahlele.

     He is Shaka the unshakeable,
     Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi
     He is the bird that preys on other birds,
     The battle-axe that excels over other battle-axes in sharpness,
     He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
     Who pursued the sun and the moon.
     He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla
     Where elephants take shelter
     When the heavens frown...