Negotiating Your Own Path to Success

Ed Brodow

Excerpt from Beating the Success Trap

The following excerpt is from Chapter Seven: A New Perspective on Failure. It debunks the myth that if you're genuinely good at something, you can't fail. The lesson is to avoid evaluating your life based on the opinions of others.

Beating the Success Trap If you build a better mousetrap, Emerson said, people will beat a path to your door. Not true! Some people are terrific mousetrap builders, yet they never achieve fame or fortune. Their failure to rise to the top was just the way the dice rolled.

There is no better place to look than the world of acting to see that talent doesn't necessarily lead to success. In the Screen Actors Guild, many members are brilliant at their craft, yet more than 85 percent are out of work at any given time. An actor named Bill O'Brien is a prime example. Not only has he done extraordinary work onstage in New York's Off-Off-Broadway theater, but he is a talented screenwriter as well. With all of his ability, he has never been able to attract the kind of attention that puts the star machine into action, and so he supports himself by driving a cab. He lives in a small walk-up apartment on New York's West Side.

On his own terms, Bill is living the life he wants, but in the eyes of some he is a failure. To cope with this perception, he has had to adopt a healthy perspective on his lifestyle. It is essential that the talented O'Briens of this world not allow others to define for them the meaning of success. They must focus on the satisfaction they derive from the fact that they do the work they love. For Bill, hell would be living in an expensive loft in SoHo for which he would have to work at an office job. In his life, success lies in the fact that he doesn't have to contend with climbing to the top of corporate America, which would send him to a mental institution. He does, however, live in New York -- a city where people are highly influenced by image and power. He has to keep healthy emotional boundaries and stay grounded in his own values. If he were to let himself be overly influenced by the culture around him, his self-worth would be damaged.

How many people who are dissatisfied with their position in the world would feel differently about their status were it not for external influences? Ask yourself this question: "If I were the only one evaluating how I live, if I had no exposure whatsoever to the criticism of others, would I be satisfied?" The answer might surprise you.

One other aspect of Bill's life that contributes to his overall feeling of success is that he has a creative outlet, even though the job that brings in the paycheck is noncreative. The majority of his time is spent acting, writing, and sculpting, all of which provide nourishment for his soul. Acting is so satisfying that he takes pleasure in the process whether he receives recognition for it or not. In the film From Here to Eternity, Montgomery Clift's character wants to stay in the army in spite of the brutal treatment he receives there. When asked why, his response is, "A man loves a thing, it doesn't have to love him back." If you love what you're doing, failure ceases to be an issue. The word loses its power entirely.

The opposite story to Bill's is that of Henry Parkhurst, who is an excellent sales manager and makes more money than he can spend. He is so talented he could sell a cowboy the horse he's riding. But he drinks too many dry martinis at lunch and I've never seen him relax. Success has undermined his willingness to take new risks and prevented him from giving up the "success" he knows to pursue the success he doesn't. Henry's real love is roses. He has over 150 different varieties in his backyard, and all he really wants to do is cultivate new ones. If he pursued this path, it would make a far greater contribution to his life than what he's doing now. People who are really good at something and reap tremendous rewards for it are not necessarily doing what makes them happy. They're just doing it because they're good at it. And the better they get, the more investment they make, the harder it is to give it up and pursue the unknown or the untried.

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