1 Causes of success and failure

Disdain to cash in a small share of your pride to buy an unpretentious success, and you may find that you have to spend all of it just to hold on to life. Refuse to accommodate the world, and you’ll end up homeless.

Some ambitious people, such as Mussolini, have marched to office by appearing irresistible. And some creep to it by appearing innocuous.

Shrewd people know how to parlay their endorsement by a few so as to win the plaudits of many, and how to convert the respect which no one quite feels for them to a firm position of advantage, and then how to put this position to use so as to extort the regard of yet more.

I sweat to earn the good opinion of those whom I don’t respect, so that I can then trade it to buy the good opinion of those whom I do respect.

When I fare well, I conclude that I have too much flair to fail. And when I fail, I conclude that I have too much decency to do what I would need to climb. If I prevail, I take it that the world dares not gainsay my conspicuous merit. And if I’m vanquished, I take it that the world is too dull to grasp it. I reckon that success is a post for which I’m over-qualified.

If you hope to get on in the world, you must learn to lie. And if you want to find the truth, you first have to fail. Truth lies hidden in the depths of hell. The saints get to keep all their illusions.

2 Small winners

I feel sure that I am more than the big triumphs that I have gained, and that my rivals are less than the small ones that they have gained.

People who have achieved small things by means of their small talents are sure that great things are achieved by the application of the same talents on a slightly larger scale. An efficient manager assumes that a great statesman is just an efficient manager who has been promoted to a higher office.

However low our success, most of the time it tops our abilities.

A cheap success now comes so ready to our hands, that we don’t aspire to anything more glorious than an easy ordinariness. The mediocre and conniving have the best of it in this world of conniving mediocrity. We rise by becoming ruthlessly second-rate. Our mediocrity wins us success, and success proves to us that we are not mediocre. The world, like a magnifying glass, makes small talents look large, but turns big ones to a blur.

They thrive most splendidly, whose superficiality best suits the world’s. Their shallow gifts are best proportioned to serve the world’s shallow needs. Their efficient brutality is best calculated to master its brute indifference.

Most of us trot on so well with the world, because we have no untoward thoughts about it. The fewer ideas we have, the better we get on in life, and the more stolid our intellect, the more secure our seat in it. Lack of imagination is the key to success in any profession.

It takes little intelligence to make a big success. Recognizing this, intelligent people scorn success, and successful people scorn intelligence.

We all now use up our lives auditioning for a cheap success, so that we can boast of it to people who are so deafened by their own self-applause that they can’t hear ours.

A little knowledge will suffice to speed you safely through the big world. Most people are quick to learn just how little they need to know, and they are resolved to learn not a whit more than that.

3 Confidence and competence

We gain confidence in our own powers when others show that they have confidence in us. And they have confidence in us in so far as we have confidence in ourselves. They are convinced by the faith that we show in ourselves, and we in turn are convinced by the faith that they show in us. ‘Nobody,’ as Trollope wrote, ‘holds a good opinion of a man who has a low opinion of himself.’ The dodge goes round and round and has no stop, though it may change its theme. Since we are all impostors, we all need to pretend to be taken in. ‘Life,’ as Pascal said, ‘is a perpetual illusion.’

The medals go to those who are sure that they deserve them. We don’t think much of those who lack the presumption to press their own claims. In this world of solemn quackery confidence does more than competence. The false self-belief that we derive from our small victories gives us the real self-assurance that we need to win more considerable ones. ‘As is our confidence,’ says Hazlitt, ‘so is our capacity.’ Conceit lends you confidence, and confidence will render you capable and bold. ‘Consciousness of our powers,’ as Vauvenargues wrote, ‘augments them.’ So our delusions serve our real interests, and our interests are working to fulfil our delusions.

We make our way in the world by telling ourselves agreeable lies and then cajoling others to share them. In order to get on, you have to make too much of your own merits, till the rest of the world comes to share your inflated self-opinion. You gain a fortune, not by generating the most value, but by inflating the price of what you sell and then persuading a throng of buyers to pay it.

We couldn’t achieve half our real success, if we dropped our self-deceptions.

4 To gain is to deserve

I have as much as I have by dint of my own merit, but I have no more than that due to my poor luck.

I have my moral sunshine, in which my good fortune assures me that God is in charge of events, and my rainy days, when I know that none but the righteous must go through the ordeals that I do.

Most of us are sure that we prove that we merit a thing by the mere fact that we have got it. Some self-opinionated people so overprice their success, that they may demur that they have no right to it. Yet they are so self-opinionated, that they will soon deem that they have earned much more, and feel resentful that they have met with so little.

When I triumph, I deduce that I am not the impostor that defeat had tempted me to suspect I might be. Success convinces us that we are genuine, and our ill luck hisses that those who have trounced us must be fakes.

We know that we are such miraculous winners, that we of course feel that winning must be the best proof of merit, and that failure is the one indubitable refutation.

The sole truth that we put any trust in is success. So why should we care how false we have to be to get hold of it?

5 Effects of success and failure

Are failures galled more by the indignation that they don’t deserve to fail or by the disabling anxiety that they do? Some people are unsure if the world will now pay them the rewards that they have earned, but they have no doubt that they have earned them.

I learn from my own adversity and from my neighbour’s prosperity, as both taste so bitter to me.

I learn from my stumblings, though in most cases the wrong lessons.

Winning hardens us, defeat corrodes us. Good fortune tempts us to dispense with our prudent virtues, and mischance makes us too poor to use them. We must choose either the victor’s self-satisfaction or the loser’s self-pity, though a lot of us plump for the victor’s self-pity.

Neglect makes some people so mad, that it goads them to stack up a spectacular bonfire of their pinched subsistence in order to strike a brief flame of attention. They beggar themselves of the penny prudence that might have rescued them from beggary.

The very shocks that make it imperative for us to shift our mode of attack too often make it impossible for us to do so.

I look back on my days, and try to trace where failure, like a cancer, made its way into my bloodstream and began remorselessly invading each organ.

We crave more than we have, but aspire to less than we ought. We are too small to take the blame for our setbacks or to be disillusioned by our success. Victory leaves us complacent but not contented. Our aspirations outstrip our abilities, but our smugness outweighs our disappointments.

A small promotion is enough to buy off our deep disillusion.

Success makes some people seem sage, and some not need to. And failure makes some too poor to be wise, and others too poor to seem much else. Our rebuffs bankrupt us of what’s not worth hazarding, and so may shrink us to a seeming sagacity. Those who have failed to get anything else may thus appear to have got wisdom. The smug and prosperous love to praise the luckless for their sage and unavailing dignity.

Some people are used up by failure, and some by success. Ruthless opportunists are punished for obtaining what they don’t deserve by not deserving it. Their success supplants their self. But this is one loss that they are happy to put up with.

Those who have scooped an undeserved prize have just made a start of their travails. Now they must prove how scantly they deserve it, by parlaying it to scrounge additional medals that they deserve still less.

Some people lose their heads because they’re exasperated by their ill luck, and some because they’re flushed by their success.

Winners can afford to rate their worth much higher than it is, and losers can’t afford not to.

Success may be a flatterer, but failure is no friend.

You pay for each of your triumphs by your need to stay on the prowl for the next one. Success spurs you to reprise it, and failure stings you to recoup it. Winning is one of the most narrowing of our addictions. Victory, as Nietzsche said, is not worth achieving if it doesn’t quench your thirst for it. Elsewise it will drag you down to an enthrallment from which you will never break free.

All that I love and hate, each of my cronies and foes, all my devotions and ventures, keeps me handcuffed to both hope and fear. Winning and losing both bind me more firmly to the world, and blind me more blackly to myself.

6 Denial

Few of us have the pride either to see that we have failed or to be sickened by our sordid victories. Our minds are not large enough to size how small our success is.

We are our own scourge and our own salve. Self is both our curse and cure. The worst punishments are those that we bring on our own heads. Conceit makes us mad to win and too blind to see that we have lost. Our self-seeking racks us, but our self-satisfaction soothes us.

If you know what real victory means, how could you deem that you are anything but a failure? But who aims so high or sees so clear, to discern that they’ve been worsted in the one aspiration that counts? We hold our own value so dear, that we don’t have to win, and can’t grasp that we have lost. We’re too pleased with who we are to be much put out by the massacre of our darling hopes. Our drubbings don’t lend us the self-awareness which alone might have made them worth the pain that they cause us. We look on failure as a foreign land, which a few of us may have strayed into for a short stint, but in which none of us are enrolled as residents.

Grant that you’re a failure, and you’ve earned an unparalleled and lonely success. But who would want the sad distinction of possessing the sensibility to be threshed by their own mediocrity and to be scarred by how unremarkable they are? Few of us feel our futility like a wound. It is a fearful thing to fall into the abyss of your own shallowness, and to be crushed by the weight of your inanity, to have the will but not the talent to do great things, to be in awe of the best and to know that you will never be good enough, to hold that the work is all in all and to see that your own work is nothing at all. ‘No fate is more dismal,’ Vauvenargues wrote, ‘than to have grand aspirations but not the calibre to carry them out.’ Between what we dreamt we might have been and what we know we are lies the urgent nightmare in which we live and strive to prove our worth.

Failure is a diminished country, in which everything goes on as it did before, momentous, absorbing and bright with hope.

Our bungles may yield us such lavish gains, that they feel like the most brilliant victories. How many of the young will achieve what they set out to do? Yet how many of their elders bewail what poor things they have done? They’ve no doubt clinched a nice consolation prize or two, which they feign they were aspiring to the whole time, or they forget what they were first levelling at, or their eyes are still filled with the victory that flutters just in front of their face. Failure seems as far away from us as our first hopes. A youngster daydreams of being elected president, and winds up opening a shop, and feels delighted to have been voted mayor of some backwoods market-town. Life tempts them so unstintingly with such measly pay, that they lose sight of the high aims that they were straining for. Satan wears a grey suit. He doesn’t take you to a mountain top. He just buys you a meal, slips a few dollars in your wallet, and introduces you to some convivial companions.

Don’t ask a plodder what it feels like to be a failure. They don’t know a thing about it. Their eyes swim with the glitter of all their victories, and can’t make out the glowering futility which envelopes them. The tortoises feel thankful to the careless hares for reminding them what sprinting successes they have made of their own race.

Even the few who tastefully understate everything else grossly overstate their own success. The one thing that no one makes too much of is the world’s indifference to themselves.

I rate my own acumen and schemes too high to count myself a failure, and I rate others too low to count them failures. I have done as much as could be expected of anyone, and they have got more than could be hoped for from their poor endowments.

Failure, like the hour of my death, seems so far in the distance that it is not real to me. I see it all round me, but I trust that it won’t come near me, though most likely it already has. It waits close by me, or else it arrived a long time ago. It comes down as implacable as night. Defeat stalks me like my shadow wherever I go. But how could I descry it, when I am all day staring at the glinting sun of success that beams just in front of me?

We fail so slowly, that we don’t see that it is happening. And we rise so slowly, that we feel licensed to do all we can to hurry it on. We don’t doubt that victory will atone for all the wrongs that we had to do to slash our way to it.

All the world declares that it is better to deserve success than to attain it, and all the world behaves as if the opposite were the case. But then if we fail to win any garlands, we feel all the more certain that we must merit them.

Our defeats are more bitter than we feared. Our victories prove more insipid than we hoped. But our self-satisfaction helps us to digest the one, and lends seasoning and savour to the other.

How modest or how conceited we must be, to have achieved so little and still to be so self-satisfied.

The blindness that lures me to my ruin mercifully spares me from blaming my own faults for it. We need half-lies and self-flattery if we are to rise in the world. And we need them all the more when we fall. We don’t learn what we are, whether we fare too well or too wretchedly. Surrender might teach us generous lessons. But it makes most of us too poor to pay for them, while our self-possession tells us that we are too rich to need them. So we fail even at failure. We shrink to be unsuccessful failures or failed successes. I’m sure that my very repulses are a confirmation that I am exceptional and that I am bound to achieve at the last sortie some unexampled victory.

How could I learn from my ill luck or from success? My defeats seem so small, that I can’t see them. My successes seem so gigantic, that I can’t see anything else. The least triumph lures me to think better of my talents, but the direst overthrow won’t convince me that I’m a useless failure. My self-congratulation fattens my lanky wins, and lightens my heaviest discouragements. My success looks to me much more substantial than it is, though a little or perhaps a lot less than it ought to be.

We make nothing of our fall, since we lack the nerve to see the nothing that it has made of us.

We don’t dare tell the truth to the fortunate, seeing that they are so formidable. And we hold off from telling the truth to the vanquished, seeing that they are so fragile.

However cruelly life racks us, it rarely extracts from us the truth.

7 Resilience

How could asses learn, when they have such stout backs? If they had been weaker, they may have had to grow wiser. They are strong enough to bear the ill-effects of their own missteps, and so they have no reason to stop committing them.

I can put up with being stripped of all that I have, since I am still sheltered by my assurance of my own worth.

The illness may make you too weak to tolerate the remedy, but your dread of catching it may render you too cowardly to do anything but try to shun it. What does not kill me makes me stronger, protests the dying animal. What does not kill me proves that I lack the spirit to kill myself when all that made life worth living has left me. It renders me incapable of more than a skulking self-protection. Pull down the shutters and keep out the plague. Though prevention may seem preferable to cure, it may do more harm than the disease. ‘The torment of precaution,’ as Napoleon said, ‘is more excruciating than the pitfalls it seeks to avoid.’ How soon resilience shrivels into irresolution. Why not just end it?

The failure of all that I have worked for would be far more terrible than death. So why am I still so unprepared to die when all that I have worked for has come to nothing?

What does not kill me may make me too grasping to let go. And that may be the most abject kind of weakness. It is the blind pertinacity of a cancer cell which has lost the capacity to die.

8 The bitch goddess Success

Human beings have never been convinced by reason. They have only been swayed by authority. And now the sole authority that they know is numbers and the crowd. Quantity is the sole test of quality for those who lack the taste to judge quality.

We evaluate by comparing. But what we compare are not things as they are but the predominant valuations of them. We judge the truth of an idea, as we judge everything else, by its incidental effects and ascendancy, since we are too negligent to investigate its intrinsic properties. ‘Success,’ as Nietzsche wrote, ‘has always been the great liar.’ Those who have been battered by years of ill luck still look on success and popularity as the sole hallmarks of truth and worth. These are, as Burke put it, ‘the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgements.’

Having seen how ready the world is to reward the cheap, the false, the pushy, the flaunting and the ephemeral, why do we still regard success as the one incontestable proof of true merit?

Stupidity looks like intelligence, so long as it has luck on its side.

As Valéry remarked, all the world reads what all the world could write. We have Shakespeare, and we just leaf through newspapers. But we’ll make do with gold if we have to, when we can’t get our hands on dross. We have ceased to write holy books, but we churn out magazines and blogs.

We think that a work of art will be no good if it’s meant to make money, but that if it is any good it will be sure to make bags of it. Our estimates of value are both mawkish and hard-headed.

Now that we all make more money than we need, we feel contempt for anyone or anything whose sole aim is not to make money. If a thing doesn’t pay, we deem it rank snobbishness to indulge in it for any purpose more ennobling than fun. And yet if we were not nagged by snobbery to prove that we are better than those round us we would all remain contented pigs. We read bad books for enjoyment, and the odd great one for the prestige that it brings us.

Popularity is the anteroom of oblivion. An artist who works to win an audience must be resigned to being forgotten. The book that millions now can’t put down in a few years no one will want to pick up. The most enduring writers have the fewest readers in their own or any other generation.

A bestseller is a book that everyone buys because everyone else is buying it.

To refer to a book as a bestseller used to be to dismiss it. Now that we fetishize numbers and success, popularity is the sole endorsement that we take note of. ‘Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood,’ Hume wrote, ‘than the approbation of the multitude.’