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May these be the things you achieve in 2012

Jan 01, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

I attended a graduation ceremony recently, and was struck by something said by one the graduands, a class president. She quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, certainly one of the more quotable people who ever passed through this planet. Here is the quotation:   

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

[Important note: this quotation has probably been wrongly attributed to Emerson. See comments below]

I am repeating it here because today is the first day of a new year, and we need inspiration as we take on the rigours to come. Success has become one of the mantras of individual life, but are we defining success correctly? Every parent wants her child to succeed; every youthful aspirant wants this universal good called success on his curriculum vitae.

Modern life seems to have got success horribly wrong. When people talk about being successful, they are nearly always talking about making a lot of money; about gaining power over others; about getting applause from an adoring public; about having lots of things to show off and invoke envy in others.

Most will not admit it, but if they care to look at that list again, that is what they are really after. Look again at the people you think are successful, and you will see that what you are measuring is their baubles and trinkets, their suzerainty over others, their popularity.

Emerson reminds us that this life is fleeting, and that to succeed in it properly is difficult. The first step, however, is to understand what constitutes success, and that is where his quotation offers timeless wisdom.

Winning the respect of wise people: is that not a much forgotten achievement? Today, people wallow and even revel in utter ignorance. They celebrate their populist idiocies. They strut in bling and delight in gibberish. In this era of easy and vapid celebrity, the need to win respect is gone.

Even more important is Emerson’s next measure: winning the affection of children. How many of us even attempt that? We ignore children, park them in front of televisions and video games, watch their minds rot before our eyes. We no longer engage them, entertain them, stimulate them, guide them. Upbringing is electronically outsourced.

We also sit around in fatalistic indifference. The world’s a mess, but what can one person do about it? What can little, insignificant me do to change things? Emerson provides something of great meaning: make sure even one person has a better life because you lived. That, surely, is in everyone’s grasp. We can all be successful, truly successful, by simply making things a little better for the people immediately around us.

Betterment is often confused with economic uplift. It may or may not be in your power to provide material gain to others. But it is certainly in your grasp to provide counsel, kindness and attention.

So let 2012 measure these things in your life: how much respect you earn for your values and principles rather than your cars and houses; how many children laugh and smile when they see you; and how much your presence on this planet boosts the wellbeing of others, not just yourself.

In closing, let us also not forget another worthy Emerson quotation: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Let us not merely record our successes in terms of wisdom received from others. Let us strive to think for ourselves and know our own things. Wise persons prompt and goad us into thinking more deeply. But they cannot do our thinking for us. Reading good things and marvelling at them is not enough. We have to be good, do good and make good things happen.

May your year be measured in smiles, respect and appreciation.

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