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Jewish World Review
Dec. 4, 2007
/ 24 Kislev 5768
Pursuing success is not enough
When I was just beginning adult life during my first term at Oxford I was struck by an autobiographical reminiscence of the writer W. Somerset Maugham. He wrote, as I recall: "When I was 18, I desperately wanted to be rich, successful and famous. Now I am all three, but I am not sure I am any happier."
The comment made Maugham seem bitter, suspicious and uneasy. When, years later, I got to know Maugham, I realized why he had made this remark. He was locked in litigation with his family, who were after his money. I felt sorry for him.
When I look at The Forbes 400, the billionaire and the celebrity rich lists, I wonder how many of the people on them are actually happy. And what about fame and success? I remember what Noel Coward once said to me regarding fame: "It's a very fragile thing, old boy. Rather like carrying a Ming vase in a storm of wind. It can be snatched out of your hand any moment. Then you miss it."
As for success, here's what Lord Beaverbrook, the greatest media magnate of his day, had to say on the subject: "Aw, Mr. Johnson, success is much less important than health. You can be the richest man in the world, and the most successful man alive, but if you lose your good health you will be a very unhappy man."
It is well to bear in mind these warnings. Not that anyone will be deterred. Ambitious men and women will continue to pursue wealth, fame and success until the end of time. And if they didn't do so, the world would be not only a much poorer place but a far less interesting one.
The question to be asked, then, is this: How can the quest for wealth, fame and success be combined with the pursuit of happiness? I'm not sure there's a foolproof answer. But there are some useful guides. Here are four of the most important.
Try to combine the pursuit of wealth with creativity. Clever manipulation of bits of paper and values may make you a billionaire, but creating a successful business, expressed in solid objects (factories, offices, docks and facilities, things of bricks and mortar and concrete) or in real estate (in lands and plantations) is more conducive to happiness. To make something something real, visible, fruitful and productive where once there was nothing is a fine expression of one of the deepest and healthiest human instincts.
A successful man is likely to find happiness in producing something useful or delightful or beautiful. I've found this to be true myself in producing books more than 40 at last count some more than 1,000 pages and some with superb illustrations. My accolades I share with my publishers and printers.
It must be a grand thing, and a deep source of happiness, to produce an entirely new, desirable, handy and cheap everyday object that hundreds of millions welcome and enjoy for instance, a revolutionary corkscrew or a safety razor, a compact or a handbag. I remember as a child hearing the shouts of delight with which the grown-up female members of my family greeted the first nylons. What a triumph to have produced those!
Create happiness and satisfaction by creating jobs. And not just paid occupations all governments do that, often by the million but genuine jobs that justify themselves, have a real purpose and longevity. The great 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides wrote that charity is a blessing, and we must all exercise it if we can. But the finest form of charity is to enable a poor man to support himself with honor and usefulness.
A businessman who can create useful, well-paid and secure jobs is doubly blessed, by the individual he makes self-supporting and by the society he renders more secure. He helps himself, too, for, as Maimonides says, there is joy in lifting people out of want, not by alms but on a permanent basis.
Job creation leads me to the fourth source of happiness that the right kind of success brings. It should have a moral basis. If possible, it should be consistent with the needs of our fellow men and women in the broadest sense, not just their material needs but their emotional and spiritual needs.
A tall order, you say? Yes, it is a tall order. But then, the pursuit of happiness is a very ambitious undertaking utopian, almost and one that requires the highest kind of standard in the methods used to attain it.
How, in general, can the pursuit of success be made consistent with the needs, in the broadest sense, of other people? Only if it conforms to a set of moral principles. I'm not saying that a businessman should primarily pursue moral aims. That would be asking too much, and I suspect it wouldn't work. What he ought to do, however, is to ensure that his business, his methods and his products or services are not incompatible with morality. He or she should always be careful when devising a business strategy or entering a new product field to study the moral implications with at least as much attention as is paid to the legal and regulatory implications.
Of course, it is desirable, to my mind, that all business activities be rooted in Judeo-Christian teaching, both theoretical and practical, or conform to a morally defensible framework of principles. We should not pursue wealth, fame and success for their own sake. If we want a chance at happiness as well, our vision must be placed much higher.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson
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