Successward: What, Really is Success? (Chapter 2)

Successward is the 1895 book written by Edward Bok.

Before a young man goes into business it is necessary, I think, that he should set himself straight on one very important point, and that is what success in business really is and means. Unfortunately, not enough has been written on this phase of the topic. It is idle for a young man to seek out the methods of success before he is really clear in his mind just what constitutes success—until, in other words, he finds out the true definition of the word. And very few of us have a proper and correct conception of it. On the other hand, thousands of us have the wrong notion.

In this age of big things, particularly, we are inclined to regard success as synonymous only with the higher walks of life, with great achievements. Success, in the minds of some, is something which is only given for the fortunate to achieve. Or we think that if we cannot do something which sets people talking or wondering about us, if our heads do not tower above those of our fellow-beings, our lives, if not altogether negative, are still not successful. In other words, we feel that a successful life is the doing of something momentous; the becoming known of all men and women; the being exceptional to the rest of the human race. Ask ten people their idea of success, and I warrant that eight will give a definition of it along these lines. And yet, when we look at the matter closely and study it carefully, scarcely a more incorrect interpretation of a successful life can be imagined. Along this line of thought, not one person in ten thousand lives a successful life, since statistics have informed us that it is only this percentage of the human race that is ever heard of outside of its immediate circle of relatives and friends.

It is given to very few of us to say something or perform some action which will be heard of by the world. The greater part of the human race dies as it is born, unknown and unheard of by the world at large. Where you find one leader among men or women you will find a thousand who prefer to follow. The instinct of leadership is rare—rare even in these developing days. Hence, if success depended upon aggressive instinct, its votaries would be few. Success is as ofttimes quietly won. I think that young men are oftener misled by wrong notions of what constitutes success than by how to achieve success as they understand it.

The average young man’s idea of success is like unto that of people of older growth, as I hinted in a preceding paragraph—it means the accomplishment of something great. He cannot understand that a successful life is just as possible in an obscure position as it is in a conspicuous one. It does not seem plain to him that a clerk earning five hundred dollars per year can make just as pronounced a success of his life as can his employer, whose income is ten thousand dollars, or even one hundred thousand dollars, per year. He is apt to measure success by dollars, and here is the rock upon which so many young men split. To be a successful subject is as great an achievement for the subject as being a successful ruler is creditable to the ruler. Every man born into the world has his limitations, and beyond that line it is simply impossible for him to go. All of us know men capable of splendid work so long as they are under direction, but who have either made or would make absolute failures as directors. Other men chafe under direction; they must be leaders. But success is as possible with the one as with the other.

The correct definition of success is the favorable termination of anything attempted—a termination, in other words, which answers the purpose intended. The writing of a business letter can be made just as great a success as can be the drafting of a presidential proclamation. Success never depends upon conspicuity, and it never will. If we accepted as the successful men of the time only those who are in conspicuous places and of whom we know, we should narrow success down to a very few. Great successes have been made as often in quiet ways as with the blare of trumpets. A commercial success won on conservative lines, and maintained by cautious and prudent methods, is the success most highly regarded in the business world to-day. The meteoric commercial flash, so admired by the average young man, seldom has a firm foundation, and rarely commands the confidence of experienced business men. The truest success is that which is earned slowly, but which surely strengthens itself. Ostentation is never typical of a true success. It is always a good thing to remember that the vast majority of successful men are never heard of. It is very important, therefore, that the first thing for a young man going into business to learn is to disassociate success from the more prominent walks in life, and get rid of that false theory. When he does that, successful living will have a deeper, fuller, and truer meaning for him. It will have for him then its correct meaning: that success is possible in every position, and can be made the possession of the humblest as well as the most powerful.

A successful life is nothing more nor less than living as well as we know how and doing the very best that we can. And upon that basis, which is the only true basis, naturally no success can be measured by fame, wealth, or station. Some of us must live for the few, as others again must live for the many, just as some are born to occupy important positions while others are intended for humbler places. But both lives are successful.

Let a young man be thoroughly fitted for the business position he occupies, alert to every opportunity, and embracing it to its fullest possibility, with his methods fixed on honorable principles, and he is a successful man. It does not matter whether he makes a thousand dollars or a hundred thousand dollars. He makes a success of his position. He carries to a successful termination that which it has been given him to do, be that great or small. If the work he does, and does well, is up to his limitations, he is a success. If he does not work up to his capacity, then he fails, just as he fails, too, if he attempts to go beyond his mental or physical limit. There is just as much danger on one side of man’s limit-line as there is on the other. The very realization of one’s capacity is a sign of success. It is an old saying that it is a wise man who knows when he has enough, and it is a successful man who never goes beyond his depth in business. This is a truth which requires experience to see, perhaps, but it is a lesson which Success demands that her votaries shall learn, and learn well. Success is simply doing anything to the utmost of one’s ability—making as much of one’s position as it is possible to make.

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