Political Education

Success Is Variable

Mark Caine, author of the 1962 novel The S-Man, once said, “The first step towards success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” This alludes to the idea that success is purely situational, and the factors that affect it must be situational in nature.  Reputation and self-esteem can be seen as relative to the environment and naturally volatile–changing drastically depending on the situation. Thus, the main reason why an individual with a tarnished reputation and self-esteem can’t find success is their conscious choice to be beaten by their current situation and feelings of failure instead of getting up, brushing the dirt off, and trying to find success elsewhere.  Success isn’t something that can be bought or inherited, and it surely isn’t something one can marginalize.  Instead, success is similar to an elastic collision in physics–like between two pool balls–one goes in one direction and the other in another upon impact. Similar to playing pool, playing the game of life for long enough gives people the opportunity to learn how to predict these collisions, and their results, giving people the ability to adapt, plan, and ultimately be successful.

The concept of “success” doesn’t have a single definition.  What one person considers to be “success” will not be the same for a different person.  These variations in what people consider as “success” come from the differences in motivation and personal values.  For example, Bernard Madoff, the former non-executive chairman of NASDAQ, used his wealth management business to create the largest Ponzi scheme in United States history, stealing billions of dollars from countless people.  Clearly, Madoff valued his personal financial gain over his ability to help others manage their wealth and increase their own financial gain.  To Madoff, making massive sums of money was his definition of “success,” regardless of the fact that he willingly and directly exploited other people that trusted him.  Madoff cared none whatsoever about his reputation–pleading guilty to all charges the day he was arrested–which will forever be tarnished. Madoff also had an obvious lack of self-esteem in asset management, choosing to steal for decades from whoever he could whenever he could.  Even though he clearly lacked confidence in his ability to play fair and will forever be remembered for how terrible he was to so many people, to Madoff, he exemplified the meaning of “successful” because all he wanted was to never be forgotten.

Most people will say that what Madoff did was far from successful. So if accomplishing one’s goals isn’t the definition we’re looking for, then what is “correct?” For some, having a good reputation and a strong sense of self-esteem may be their definition. However, an individual who values others more than themselves may feel successful despite having their self-esteem or reputation completely tarnished.  For example, consider the situation of a very young, single, but more than anything else, loving mother who could never afford a proper education or a one way ticket out of town.  In order to make the most possible money for her child’s survival she has tried everything: waitressing, fast food, Walmart, and even unemployment but none of these pay even half as much as she can make working at that sketchy club just off the interstate as a stripper.  For this woman, being able to see her child’s smiling face because Santa Claus finally came this year makes her feel far more successful than she ever did working any of those other jobs.  Although her job may lower her self-esteem and gives her a terrible reputation, she values her child far more than anything else.  This job gives her the chance to offer her child far more opportunities than she ever was presented, and she can provide future guidance on how to improve their lives by opening up about her own mistakes and creating an even closer relationship with her child.

Motivation and personal values are variable, and as such, the idea of “success,” too, is variable and completely dependent upon each individual person.  Madoff used his greedy motivations and selfish personal values to propel himself into one of the most powerful leadership roles in the business world.  Despite how unethical his methods were, for all intents and purposes, he was absolutely “successful” in achieving his goals.  On the other hand, the single mom’s motivation and personal values are the exact opposite of Madoff’s, a completely selfless motivation of working at a strip club because her personal values are null compared to the importance of finally being able to have a real Christmas with her child. However, success being independent of reputation and self-esteem stretches beyond the evil or the desperate, this idea of variable success has been prevalent amongst some of the world’s most well-known and highly touted “success stories” and is the reason that many of the things we do, have, and use are here for our enjoyment today.

There is probably no one who better represents this idea more than the man who gave us music in our pockets, the internet on our phones, and every mom’s saving grace – the full-length feature animated film – none other than Steve Jobs. In 1985, Jobs was fired from the very company that he started in his parent’s garage almost ten years prior, and it wouldn’t be for another decade before he would return in the spectacular fashion he did.  However, the twelve years Steve spent in Apple exile were when Steve really blossomed into the iconic trailblazer and revolutionary innovator that we remember him as today.  It was during these “dark ages”, as it’s often referred to by Apple enthusiasts, that Steve exemplified the idea of success being independent of reputation or self-esteem and being completely dependent on the individual, their motivation, and their personal values.

Steve Jobs giving one of his famous keynotes in 2007, only a year after he sold Pixar to Walt Disney Corp.

Steve Jobs giving one of his famous keynotes in 2007, only a year after he sold Pixar to Walt Disney Corp.

When Steve left Apple it was on the worst of terms, pushed out by his own friends, in particular his right hand man, who became his replacement, John Sculley.  Steve was blind-sided by this betrayal, became depressed, and made some very irrational decisions–most notably selling all of his shares in Apple except for one. In 1986, only a year after the ousting, Steve purchased majority share in the struggling animation department of the legendary Lucas Films, which is still known to this day as Pixar.  Of course, many thought this was Steve spiraling out of control yet again and opinion of him from everyone, especially those close to him, plummeted to a point where his reputation was beyond tarnished.  Over the course of the next eight years Steve invested a total of around fifty million dollars, a large portion of his bank roll, and was living in his Palo Alto home with almost no furniture, not even a bed, on the verge of foreclosure.  He never lost hope, though, and in the ninth year he struck a deal with Walt Disney Corp to create the first ever full-length featured animated film, and in late 1995 Toy Story was released.  This dynamic team would continue to pump out box office hits until, in 2006, Steve sold Pixar to Walt Disney Corp for almost seven and a half billion dollars.  Steve’s reputation and self-esteem issues didn’t affect his ultimate success in the slightest, he could keep them separate, which goes to show just how irrelevant these things truly matter when success is truly desired.

Those who agree with the idea that tarnished reputations and self-esteem make success difficult, if not impossible, undoubtedly have an image or name of someone who fell from grace pop into their head almost instantly.  Almost everyone, no matter the side, could think of someone they recognize as unsuccessful due to a bad reputation or low self-esteem, but one of the most historically famous examples is former President Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal. To this day, he is still widely recognized as one of the worst Presidents ever, to many, the absolute worst, so it’s a safe presumption that most would call him unsuccessful.  After the resignation things only got worse for the former President, especially once he went home to California where he was a very broken man, unsure of himself and what to do with his life.  Things rapidly worsened. Soon after, he had physical issues that called for surgery, then internal bleeding called for another surgery which ultimately led to long hospital stays and accrued into what many say was the lowest point in Nixon’s life.  Simply put, with tarnish on both reputation and self-esteem like that, those who agree would say that Nixon is the poster-child for impossible success.

Richard Nixon giving his resignation speech, to this day he is still the only President to do so. Photo credits: Hulton Achiever/Getty Images

Richard Nixon giving his resignation speech, to this day he is still the only President to do so.
Photo credits: Hulton Achiever/Getty Images

By the end of 1974 Richard Nixon was out of a job, injured, depressed, in federal debt up to his ears, completely broke, and, above all else, the most hated man in America. If Nixon’s success were dependent upon his reputation and self-esteem, then he would have surely been unsuccessful in the future.  However, if his success is independent of reputation and self-esteem, success will be determined by Nixon’s motivation and personal values. It happens that, as his life progressed, Nixon actually slowly regained financial stability and slowly reintroduced himself into the public. He went to China in 1976 and Kentucky in 1978, receiving warm and friendly welcomes from both hosts.  Although he had tarnished reputation and self-esteem, he was still a mastermind when it came to foreign policy and Nixon ended up consulting for several Presidential administrations on the subject.  Throughout the remainder of his career, Richard Nixon continued his success by being the author of quite a few books that were generally well-regarded and gave an astounding amount of speeches throughout the world. Even Richard Nixon, the only President to ever resign and a man who once was the most hated man in the United States, found success despite a tarnished reputation and self-esteem.

That situation should have illustrated the dependency of success on reputation and self-esteem, instead it strengthened the idea that success is indeed variable.  This idea that success is variable means the individual is the only influence that matters for their own success, which is reminiscent of something Henry David Thoreau once said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  Since success is variable, it can accommodate a wide range of accomplishments.  A college student can find success in getting straight A’s, while another college student can find success in finally passing a college course.  One can find success in simple things, such as finally cleaning the entire house or finally cleaning the litter box.  Success can also be found in something like not smoking a cigarette for a day or even throwing a piece of paper across the room and it landing directly in the trash can.  When success happens, no matter what it is, for at least a moment, whatever has been tarnished about individual becomes completely irrelevant.  This is because success is happening in the here and now accompanied by the feeling of accomplishment, while whatever was tarnished about an individual was done so in the past, and as my parents always tell me, “The only thing that truly matters is the here and now because you’ll never be here again, and it’s no fun to talk about today when tomorrow becomes today.”


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