What's This Success Thing?
by Ellis Parker Butler
Ellis Parker Butler is best known as the author of "Pigs Is Pigs"; but he has applied his whimsical humor to a wide range of subjects. His speculations on what constitutes success are a happy illustration of the manner in which he drives home a point and clinches it with a jesting reference that will set you to thinking seriously before your smile has time to fade. This month he contributes "What's This Success Thing?"
It seems to me that people shout a lot about how fine it is to be successful, but they don't tell us much about what success is. The only men who seem to be dead sure about it are those who began life with one shirt and no pocket-handkerchief and end up with sixty-eight million dollars and a bald dome. There is no question that they have grabbed success. They started out to get sixty-eight million dollars and they got it, and that is success, even without the hairless cranium. The baldness is thrown in as a sort of extra bonus, I suppose, or is a badge of honor, showing that a mighty high-powered brain has been white hot for a long period of time.
But, somehow or other, I personally have never hankered for sixty-eight million dollars, and I have wanted to be successful, so it looks a little as if gathering a large bunch of money into one pile might not be the only sort of success there is. Take an ordinary yellow gutter-pup, for instance, that has to dodge from garbage can to garbage can to get its daily food and is so busy twenty-four hours of the day that it hardly has a minute to scratch fleas, and ask it what success means and it will say, "I shall consider my life a success when I am so full of food that I can sit down somewhere in the sun and put in eleven solid hours scratching the back of my ear with my left hind foot." And then if I ask one of that pup's fleas what it thinks success is, it will say, "I shall consider my life a success when I can find a location on this pup that he can't reach with his left hind foot." By this you can see what different things constitute success.
When thirty-eight carefully chosen young men line up in what always looks to me like scanty underwear to begin a Marathon run you can safely bet on one thing -- they will all start in the same direction when they begin to run. One of them will end the run ahead of the others, and he will be a success. But ten others will last out the full distance and they have a right to feel set-up and cocky and consider that they were successes, too. And the remaining twenty-seven, who passed the tests and were permitted to run, may feel that they are the most successful of the lot, because they may have started life with stiff legs, weak lungs, and palpitating hearts and just to be allowed to enter a Marathon race has been a whale of a triumph for them. They can swell with pride as they think that their grandchildren will say, years from now, "Our grandpa was wonderful -- he ran in a Marathon race and lasted over half a mile."
But one funny thing about the real run for success is that the starting group does not line up across a road and then all sprint off in the same direction. When we get ready for our start, we crowd together back to back and at the snap of the pistol we dash off in forty-seven directions, and very often those who are best satisfied with their success are not those who make a bee line for the sixty-eight million dollars.
It seems to me that a man is a success when he has accomplished something he wants to accomplish and, by and large, there are five big wants that the five kinds of men feel urging them. These are:
The want to own,
The want to seem,
The want to know,
The want to do,
The want to be.
I've a notion that the "want to be" is the biggest and finest of these, and that the "want to seem" is the cheapest and tawdriest and, possibly, one of the most common. You might call it the peacock motive, if that wouldn't be an insult to the peacock, which it would be, for when the peacock lowers his wings and spreads his glittering gleaming tail he is not doing it for mere show purposes -- he is trying to make a hit with the ladies, object matrimony.
When a man has lived thirty or forty years in New York or any other big town he comes to know quite a lot of these "want to seem" people. I've known quite a few "want to seem" millionaires who strutted about and were talked about in the papers and had their limousines and big houses and put on a tremendous lot of social and financial plumage, and when they died and were assayed they netted about $18.75 real money -- the rest was all bluff and appearance. And a lot of big hits among the tea-fighting literary men and ladies pan out the same way a few years after they are dead -- you have to go to a library with an extra-complete card system to discover what they wrote and that they ever wrote anything. But they have a grand time while they are playing the game; they enjoy it up to the hilt. They are Great American authors every time there is an afternoon reception and their books are the greatest and grandest ever written every time their publishers print a blurb on the jacket of a new book. Then they die and are forgotten. Unless their egos are as big as barns they know all the while that they are not producing anything that is worth much of anything, but they are successful "seemers." They take their success in seeming to be something big. They put everything in the show window. And that's all right, too; I don't object to that. I give a little more shine to the toes of my shoes than to the heels myself.
All I say is, that it seems to me that the man who says, "If I can only make folks think I am great or rich I'll consider life a success" is after a low grade of success, made of imitation leather and trimmed with glass beads.
And I hope I won't make all the millionaires mad at me if I say I think the "want to own" men are not much above the "want to seem" fellows. I always like to think of money as wheat -- a dollar is a bushel of wheat and a million dollars is a million bushels of wheat. And you and your family can eat wheat. It is food. It is a wise thing to try to pile up enough wheat to be sure of food tomorrow and the next day and -- for that matter -- for you and your family for the rest of your lives. And wheat and money are clothes and fuel and comforts and luxuries, so I approve of piling up enough wheat to have all these things. But -- I'm giving my own feeling's, you understand -- I have never been able to see any big idea in trying to rake in all the wheat in the world and get it into my own pile. Some folks do. Some mighty fine people feel that the more wheat they dump in their bins the bigger their success. They "want to own."
Certainly, it is a poor sort of squirrel that never has enough to eat and runs up against winter with not enough nuts to last until Christmas. You have to admire the squirrel that fills his nest so full that he has to sleep outdoors in a hammock. But beyond that I don't go. I would call the squirrel that fills the entire south end of Central Park with nuts a very energetic and unslothful squirrel, but when that squirrel has piled up nuts ten feet deep over a square quarter of a mile, I can't see that he has done much but hustled like everything to get together a lot of nuts that are going to winter-rot and get moldy and go to more or less waste.
When a man has piled up a hundred thousand bushels of wheat I'd call him a success at wheat piling, but when he piles another hundred thousand bushels on top of that, and a million on top of that, and sixty-million bushels on top of that, it seems to me he isn't getting anywhere in particular -- all he has is "some more wheat." And if you call it dollars he only has "some more dollars." When he has enough he is a success, but as soon as he begins to pile up more than enough, he has to set a new success goal, and, unless he manages to gather in all the money in the world, he feels that he is never again as successful as he might be. He is only having some fun by giving play to his "want to own" ambition. A one-eyed man with a wooden arm, who manages to feed and clothe and house his family and keep his children in school, has an equal right to feel that he is a success.
The cat that by naughty ways and ill temper gets kicked out of the house and is too indolent or inept to keep itself fed, and thus starves to death, is a failure, but when it comes to mere material prosperity the man who can raise a family and take care of it decently and then die with enough assets to provide an income for his family, buy a cemetery lot and a coffin for himself has a full right to call himself a success -- anything much more than that smells a good deal like imitation leather and looks a good deal like glass beads.
If I were to take big piles of wheat or dollars as the criterion of success I would have to forget a whole big group of men and women who arc pretty well satisfied that their lives are successful, although they may never have owned even a second-hand Ford car. These are the "want to know" people. You might take John Burroughs as an example; he wanted to know a few things about nature and he spent his life getting to know them, and he did get to know them. He wanted to know, for example, whether a fish hawk when it dived for a fish picked up the fish with its beak or its claws. No one, as far as he was aware, could tell him that. He sat on the edge of the Palisades and watched fish hawks until he did know, and he went home happy and all warmed up and blissful because he had added something to human knowledge and to his own knowledge of fish hawks. If he had done nothing else he might have said, "I've not been much of a success, but I have done one thing -- I discovered how fish hawks pick up fish." But he did not stop there -- he spent his life learning things he wanted to know, correcting errors other observers had carelessly made, getting at the truth about birds and animals and the flora. When John Burroughs died, the things he had learned were enormously numerous and all clean and sweet and plain. He never had sixty-eight million bushels of wheat or sixty-eight million dollars, and he never owned a silver-plated limousine, but John Burroughs is one man I'd be willing to call a success.
And probably Edison is a success -- I don't know. No one can know but Edison. Edison has the "want to know" mind, but I understand he has made some millions of dollars and the dollars may have interfered with his success. He would have to tell you that. What I mean is that Edison may have wanted to spend ten times as much time investigating electrical phenomena, but may have found himself drawn away from that to take chance discoveries financially valuable. There are many of these "want to know" people who would consider it a distressing waste of time to have to stop investigating the inner skin of a boll weevil's egg in order to make eighteen million dollars. I don't say I am that way. I often fear there, is something coarse and grasping in my nature.
But there are thousands of these men and women, and always have been. Astronomers who want to know about the skies, botanists who want to know about plants, zoologists, linguists, Shakespearian scholars, geologists, all the natural scientists, and students and investigators of the world and the people of the world and their doings and creations. We can't help but admire them, and we have to be decidedly dense not to recognize that when they are successful their success is a real success. We seem to know without being told that we were given brains to do something with and that the men and women who extend the fields of human knowledge are doing something worth while. So there is another variety of success.
Then there are the men who have the "want to do" impulse and who do not feel successful unless they have done something. And here is where a lot of these millionaire fellows come in for a respect that is due them. I don't get very excited when I hear that a man has made a lot of millions out of "five and ten cent" stores. I do appreciate being able to go down the street and in two minutes buy six rubber washers for a nickel and a can of shoe blacking for a dime. I'm willing to take my hat off to the man who stuck such cheap and convenient stores all over the country so that I can walk in, pick up a paper of pins and drop a nickel and walk out again without having to stand with my thumb in my mouth while two ladies spend half an hour trying to decide whether to buy one yard of violet ribbon or one yard of lavender. That man did something. The money that he made was merely incidental; his success was in thinking of standardized stores, scattered nationwide, with low-priced articles.
Roosevelt decreeing the Panama Canal and seeing it through did something; great generals and admirals are heroes because they do what they do and do it well; authors and editors and oil refiners and bridge builders -- men and women in all sorts of activities have this "want to do" urge and are successful when they have done the thing. I think it is rather finer than the "want to own" impulse and not in the same class with the "want to seem" urge. The man who takes forty acres of stump-land in Wisconsin and sets out to grub out the stumps and make a farm is a "want to do" fellow, and so is the poet who wraps a wet towel around his head and sits up all night trying to find a rhyme for "hippopotamus" that means "enthusiastically" and is not satisfied until he does find it. The success of the "want to do" man is in doing what he sets out to do and doing it well.
It is up to the man himself to decide what he thinks is worth doing. No one can tell me whether I am a success or not; I have to decide that for myself. I have in my family a dog and the dog is mostly white. We try to keep the dog in the house because he seems to have two ideas of what constitutes a successful day. One is to get out of the house, and the other is to bite a policeman. If this dog can slip out of the house when someone is opening the door, run two miles and bite a policeman on the calf, and return looking like a four-year-old kitchen mop, he considers it success. He has his own standard, you understand. Another dog will not consider that a success; he will not consider his day successful unless he has been able to sneak a beefsteak off the kitchen table and eat until he looks like a woolly football. And you may run across another dog that looks like a moth-eaten coon-skin cap, that never wants to bite a policeman and has no especial interest in beefsteaks and is satisfied to repose all day with its nose on its paws. That sort of dog doesn't care to appear to be a wolf, and it doesn't care to lay up a lot of buried bones, and it doesn't care to know anything about tulips or mastodons, and it doesn't want to do much of anything at all. It is satisfied to know it is all-in-all dog and thoroughly canine all through. Its greatest desire is to be all it seems to be. It set out to be a dog and is a dog and considers itself a success.
In some ways, the "want to be" people are the salt of the earth. Take a woman, for instance, who wants to be a good wife and mother. She says to herself that if she can be that, her life will be a success. And she's right. She doesn't have to climb Mount Everest, or invent a new patent machine for making raspberry jam out of second-hand postage stamps, or earn and bank sixty-eight million dollars or make people think she is first cousin to the Empress of India. If her ambition is to be a good wife and mother and she is that -- the gold medal of success for her! She wins. Show me the mother who has darned seventy-two stockings every week for thirteen hundred weeks with not a water blister on any heel in the family, and I don't care how many million dollars Henry Ford has. I call her a success.
And the man who decides in his youth that his life will be a success if he can live so that he is satisfied he has been a fair and square citizen, playing fair every day, ought to be counted a success.
I think the man who can live sixty-five years and then die feeling that forty people are actually sorry he is dead has made a pretty good success of himself. I put the number at forty, but that may be high and is merely a rough estimate. If twenty in his own family -- including his wife and children and nephews and nieces and cousins -- and ten he has done business with, and ten others, are sincerely sorry he is gone, that man has certainly done something worthwhile. I doubt if Christopher Columbus could count forty such. I've seen some old ladies who could figure on twice that many, bless their dear old hearts!
It is amazing, when we come to consider it, how few there are for whom we would weep. Or, to put it another way, how few there are who mean much of anything to us. I'd like you to just ask yourself -- honestly and no bunk -- for how many men would you feel a genuine pang of regret if you heard they had been sent to prison for twenty years. You know well enough that you can read in the newspaper of an earthquake in -- say, for instance -- Mongolia, and that eight million Mongolians lost their lives (if there are that many) and about all you'll say is, "My! How awful! Heavens! What a terrible catastrophe!" But you'll worry ten times as much if your canary gets the pip. And if word came that the eight million Mongolians had been arrested and sentenced to twenty years in the penitentiary, you would probably say, "Caesar's ghost! What a big penitentiary they must have!" But it would not mean much to you, one way or the other, unless you had been doing a good business in eye salve in Mongolia.
And if the people of your town were picked off one by one and sent to prison for twenty years, how many would you really mourn for? If your oldest boy went I know how you would feel about that, and I know how he would feel if you went, but how many of the people in your town mean enough to you to cause you to be more than temporarily interested in the newspaper account of why they were arrested and sent away? You might be shocked for an hour or so to think that a man you had seen at least once a week had done a thing so evil that he had to go to prison, but it is safe to say that eighty out of a hundred would be nothing but names to us. People in our towns are going to penitentiaries for twenty-year terms right along and it does not fret us much, does it? They have done nothing to make us care.
Here in New York a man is lucky if he knows the names of all the families in his apartment house, or in his block; and if one of the men went to prison for life we would be jarred for a moment or two, but we would get over that before the end of the week. So it narrows down to a mighty small margin -- if a man has ten business acquaintances and ten other friends who would be sincerely sorry to see him go to prison he is a fortunate man. And I think twenty members of his family are enough to add to that -- there are some men whose families would actually rejoice to see them in prison. It would be a great relief.
I think any man who can live in such a way that he has ten real friends has been considerable of a success. I would not call any man or woman who has five such friends a failure.
Success is not accomplishing what some other man thinks you should; it is doing what you yourself think you should do or be. If a geranium in California does not grow all over the neighborhood and climb the side of the house and across the roof and down into the back yard and have seven million blossoms it has a right to consider itself a failure; but if a geranium slip that is picked up in the gutter and stuck in a tin can and set on the window-ledge of an air-shaft tenement manages to put forth one green leaf and show one mildewed blossom before it gives up the fight, it can honestly call itself a success. Success is not doing what you can't do, but doing what you can do. The trouble with us is that we don't do that -- not often. And the main reason is that we don't take the trouble, in the first place, to decide what we mean by success. How can you expect to get to a place unless you decide where you are going?
I think most of us know what we want to do or be, in a vague way, and want to go in that direction, but when we have trotted along at our proper pace just about so long, someone shouts "Look at James J. Pillgath; he's got sixty eight million dollars -- how much have you got?" And we immediately begin to reckon our success in dollars. Someone tells me Rufus K. Blatz made $50,000 out of his book, "The Double-Jointed Rose" and I'm ashamed and feel cheap as if I were a fizzle because I never made that much on one book of my writing. And I may know all the while that "The Double-Jointed Rose" is cheap trash. I doubt if Shakespeare ever made as much out of all his plays as some modern dramatist will make out of a show called "The Sinful Mother," but Shakespeare doesn't let that worry him. For one reason, a man who could produce "Hamlet" would have had better sense.
If you want to count your success in dollars, do it. Dollar success seems to me a perfectly good and legitimate sort of success to strive for, and a necessary one up to and a little beyond the food-clothing-housing point. Beyond that it becomes more or less a game and you can succeed at it or fail at it the same as in any other game. But I don't want to think I am a failure merely because I don't happen to have the sort of mind and make-up that is best at dollar making. I give the dollar fellow full credit, but I can see that there are other sorts of success -- and all good.