Blog: December 2014

Success: A Theory of Imitation

When we think about success what, or who, do we think about? Are the successful those with fame, wealth, recognition, academic achievements, happiness, the ability to effect change, or a mixture of the above? Perhaps it depends on each of us as individuals. By discussing a very few maybe we can think on how to imitate them!

Fame without substance to me seems the antithesis of success. Perhaps I am alone in this but it seems fame comes as a rather unfortunate side-effect of achievement or indeed lack thereof in some cases. Some of the most ‘successful’ people in the world often have no recognition whatsoever. One particular example of this is the true academic prodigy…

All Soul’s College in Oxford is unusual and highly exclusive in that it has no undergraduates and only 76 Fellows. The rigorous application and interview process is shrouded in myth and mystery, and tales circulate of 80-person interview panels and exams questions made up of one word only! The college take only the highest echelons of academic society, and arguably to even gain entrance is an honour and the epitome of academic achievement.

As regards wealth, there is no doubt that entrepreneurs and business people can do exceptionally well for themselves, be highly successful, and indeed are not always even educated to a high level. Then again, John Paul Getty, named the richest man in the Guinness Book of Records 1966 and worth over a billion dollars in the currency at the time is remembered for having said ‘What I learned at Oxford has been used to great advantage throughout my business career.’ Sound. (This is a word of approval one would hear reverberating around whichever hall is housing the Oxford Conservative Association meeting of the week.)

The above forms of success are relatively speaking quite introspective, and there is a wealth of names of those who have succeeded in changing society for the better, whether by scientific breakthrough, societal reform or otherwise.

Hollywood has turned its gaze to biopics of genius recently, with films such as ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’ featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as code-breaker Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking respectively. However romanticised in such films, these individuals can certainly be said to have been successful.

We might think also of some of the great movements of the 20th century for example, and their heroes- Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, to name but a few. These people were united in a belief in something much greater than themselves, using their own voices to educate people in the literal sense of drawing out a better society.

‘Education is the most important weapon which you can use to change the world’. Nelson Mandela

For the majority of us though, a good place to start is personal success, indeed the very definition of the word success can vary person to person. A couple of pieces resonate with me in particular. The first a poem by Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, and the second a quote misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and published in a Kansas newspaper in 1904, by a woman named Bessie A. Stanley…


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

‘He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has left the world better than he found it, whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction’.

It is perhaps a testament to the success of individuals and of society that such a piece would not be written now in such a gendered voice!

Posted: December 31, 2014

The Importance of Debate!

‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt’, or so goes a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps this is true in some contexts but my apologies America, I’m going to have to disagree with him where education is concerned!  

Debate, whether as an abstract construct or as the constructed exercise common in high school competition and politics with strict rules and format- introductions, opening statements, rebuttals and so on- is a useful and valuable tool. It is also the cornerstone of tutorials, of essays and of speeches, both at Oxford University, and at Oxford Summer Courses, as well as at the Oxford Union, an institution famed for its speakers and debates. Participation in debates enables you to become less narrow- minded, to look at all sides of an argument, to provide scope and structure to your work and in practice to develop the art of public speaking and rhetoric.  

In a tutorial at Oxford, and at Oxford Summer Courses, you will be encouraged to present your ideas and arguments in an essay and then to discuss them. As a general rule an essay should set all the different facets of an issue, structured in such a way as to form a clear and coherent theory, substantiated by evidence. It is then by debating the subject with a professor, and with other students, that our ideas can be developed and our arguments strengthened. For more information about tutorials, see our earlier blog post on the subject!  

Our structured debate night takes place once a fortnight during the summer course. Our students are presented with a topic, and two volunteers take the proposition, and two take the opposition to the motion, examples of which include last year’s ‘Social Media sites such as Facebook are overwhelmingly destructive’, ‘Neuroscience should be taken into account in criminal trials’ and ‘Megacities are a “Good Thing”’. The preparation is a mixture of independent research and teamwork, and each student covers different aspects of the debate. Rebuttals are then offered in reaction to each debater’s arguments, and questions are posed by the judges and audience. Finally a vote is taken. The whole process encouragers debaters and audience to be both firm and flexible in their ideas, to engage in an interesting and often controversial topic, to communicate clearly and to think and analyse quickly and critically.  

Interestingly, the format of the debates used today, in schools, college, the Oxford Union, British politics and at Oxford Summer Courses, is the same as that used in the series of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858. Incidentally, during these debates, it was when the future president began to speak out, and to go on the offensive that the contemporary reporters, and our historians, judge his losing streak began to take a turn. Perhaps he began to listen to the opinions of others on debate and speaking out. Here are a couple more…  

‘It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ – Aristotle  

‘A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.’ – Nelson Mandela  

For more on the Lincoln debates:


Posted: December 18, 2014


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