Monday, November 14, 2011

Success Breeds (More) Success

The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistic and self-complacent is erroneous; on the contrary it makes them, for the most part, humble, tolerant and kind.
W. Somerset Maugham

The most important single ingredient in the formula of success
is knowing how to get along with people.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Almost every person wants to achieve a measure of success in his chosen field. Success comes to some more easier, or so it seems, than to others, which raises the question of why this is so. Some would point at the halo effect, that a person judged favorably in one area is deemed favorable in all respects. But in a field of hard-working talented individuals, why do some achieve greatness, while others don't.

In some cases, it has to do with achieving a rank of recognition in a competition, whether national or international. In exams of science, engineering and mathematics, it is easy to measure whether the result is right or wrong, and thus rank the students or competitors accordingly. Sports offers a similar ranking scheme, as does chess and card games like poker. And so does the greatest of competitions, political campaigns. In all these, there are winners and losers, defined by clear rules.

In the arts, it is more subjective, although the judges of such competitions have a set of standards that they use to arrive at a decision and to rank the performers. When you look at international piano competitions, for example, the top five pianists are wonderfully competent and can perform at a high level, the differences noted only by the best set of ears, eyes and heartfelt sensibilities. But there is likely something more at play here than technicality or virtuosity, as important as these are.

There is that unknown something that cannot really be measured or scored. In some cases it is timing, that is, the world is ready for such a style. Yet, it might be something far more simple to understand yet hard to fake—likeability. The artist has to project himself, an aspect of humanity and vulnerability, to the audience. Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, was not liked and thus failed to succeed.

Being liked is essential for artists, as is liking others and caring for them. Such sensitive artists can connect with the audience and establish a rapport, a conversation if you will. Now, once an artist makes a breakthrough it is easier for him to win another competition, and in some cases an artist or two wins the majority of important awards —the so-called international superstar. Of course, such  individuals have tremendous talent, whether they are a Horowitz, a Rubinstein or today, a Kissin.

Irving Berlin once said, "The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success." Perhaps so, but you can't take such a saying seriously, since Berlin remained successful for most of his musical career. Likeability aside, one wonders if success often just breeds more success. Successful people not only have greater confidence, but are also more happy and content, and thus have an open attitude for success. As a group, they actually might be more compassionate and caring, having a strong moral sensibility. In a sense, the successful remain successful because they are, well, successful.


  1. The world is an unpredictable place. Did Glenn Gould project likeability?
    Who wins competitions? It's a matter of chance. Often the winners, runners-up and losers are equally good.
    In the 1750s, the music of Bach and Vivaldi was forgotten. Bach was rediscovered by Mendelssohn; Vivaldi wasn't rediscovered until the 20th century. Nevertheless, the music of these composers was equally good in all centuries.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Glenn Gould might be the exception that proves the rule. I was suggesting that in a field of equals there might be something else at play. Nevertheless, your point is well taken, and perhaps my argument is irrelevant.


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