Success: A Theory of Imitation

Date of Publication: 18 December 2014

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-

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!

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