Although the subject of (fear of) success and failure is not front and center all the time, it is a constant lurker, sometimes close, sometimes distant but never gone. It can create the sensation of being stalked.
Unlike a corporeal stalker, one can do something about the spectre of success and failure without going to court or calling the police. One can come to terms with it through understanding and self-awareness. Yesterday we were enjoying a New Yorker piece, The Uses of Adversity, by Malcolm Gladwell when a clue presented itself. Gladwell, using Sidney Weinberg as an example, writes about the value of adversity – poverty, dyslexia – in the lives of people who became extraordinarily successful. Weinberg was born to a poor family in Brooklyn. Through perseverance and a lie, Weinberg talked his way into a job as assistant janitor at Goldman Sachs. At Goldman Weinberg was in every sense an outsider. “By 1930, he was a senior partner, and for the next thirty-nine years – until his death in 1969 – Weinberg was Goldman Sachs, turning it from a floundering, mid-tier partnership into the premier investment bank in the world.” How was it possible for a “poor, uneducated member of a despised minority” to start as an assistant janitor and end up one of the most powerful men in a corporate america dominated by old boy Ivy Leaguers? (Incidentally, Gladwell’s account of Weinberg’s success as an outsider reminds us of a comment we heard many, many years ago about a superb, now-retired trial lawyer at New Haven’s most prominent, old line firm. Watching him try a case in Federal District Court in the mid 70’s, we were mightily impressed. When we asked about him, we were told that he had gone to Fordham Law School and had been hired because he was an aggressive, talented trial lawyer, Irish to boot. It was explained that the firm, dominated by graduates of Ivy League law schools – especially YLS – didn’t really do much trial work, the implication being that white shoe, old line firms didn’t do trial work, that trial work was in the same category as bankruptcy law, crass, rough and not very lucrative. Boy how times have changed.)
Gladwell, quoting the anthropologist Brian Foster writing of commerce in Thailand, writes:
A trader who was subject to the traditional social obligations and constraints would find it very difficult to run a viable business. If, for example, he were fully part of the village society and subject to the constraints of the society, he would be expected to be generous in the traditional way to those in need. It would be difficult for him to refuse credit, and it would not be possible to collect debts. … The inherent conflict of interest in a face-to-face market transaction would make proper etiquette impossible or would at least strain it severely, which is an important factor in Thai social relations. see page 38.
For us that is a clue to our understanding of our own success and failure. Better late than never?