Chapter 5 – Righting the Direction
In spite of the will to fail, in spite of the rewards of failure, success is the normal aim of man, his proper objective. Energy is correctly used, not by spending it to hold ourselves inactive, nor by spurring ourselves to unproductive sterile activity, but only when it is at the service of the maturest and most comprehensive idea of ourselves that we can arrive at.
What this highest idea is will vary from individual to individual, and will expand with growth. No outsider can dictate another’s private definition of success. It may, it often does, include some recognition from one’s fellows, and greater financial rewards; on the other hand, it may not. Many a researcher in the sciences would consider himself fully successful (and would be right), if he added one minute fact to the mass of accumulating details on which science must proceed, if he took one item out of the realm of hypothesis and speculation and placed it in its proper relation to the mass of known truths. His name might never be known by those outside his science; it might be quite obscure even within his own field. He would nevertheless have attained the goal for which he was working if he accomplished that which he himself set out to do.
The actress who reaches the top of her art is as successful as the mother who raises a large and healthy family – but not more so. A priest or minister immersed in the care of his parish lives as successful a life as the genius whose name is known by most of his contemporaries. Another’s ideal of success may have so little in common with our own that we are quite blind as to what he can see in the career he has chosen, but unless we are totally unimaginative we know, when we see him living responsibly, effectively, usefully, happily, making the most of his advantages and gifts, that we are dealing with a successful man.
To offer too circumscribed a definition of success would defeat the purpose of this book. Much of our distrust of the word, as it is, comes from not realizing the infinitely extensive range of possible “successes.” Each of us, usually by late adolescence, has a mass of knowledge about himself, which – if we took the counsel “Know thyself” seriously – could be examined and considered until the individual’s ideal of the good life would emerge from it plainly. It ought to be part of education to see that each child should understand the necessity of finding this clue to his future, and be shown that it is sometimes thrown into confusion by hero-worship, or by the erroneous notion that what is an item in the success of one must be present in the success of each of us. Still, in spite of confusion, false starts, the taking over of the ambitions of a parent or teacher for ourselves instead of finding our own, most of us do arrive in the early twenties knowing what we are best fitted to do, or could do best if we had the training and opportunity.
It is worth noting carefully that unless you have allowed yourself to overestimate your character grossly, your own success-idea is within the region of those things which can be brought about. Usually, far from overrating our abilities, we do not understand how great they are. The reason for this under-estimation of ourselves will be considered later, but it is well to realize that few except the truly insane believe themselves suited for careers far beyond their full powers.
The next point to understand is that in these pages we are not talking about success of any secondary or metaphorical sort. Your idea of what is success for you is not here to be replaced by another high-sounding, “idealistic” compromise. You are not being exhorted, once more, to lower your hopes and then find that you can easily reach the simpler standard. Such programs are only temporizing with failure. On the contrary, the more vividly you can present to yourself the original picture of the goal you once hoped to be able to reach, the better your chances are of attaining it.
Now, having examined the currents in our nature which lead us to acquiesce in failure, understanding that, if we allow it to happen, we can be carried unprotestingly down in the deathward direction, let us see what is operating immediately to keep us from the healthy efforts we must make to succeed.
To do so we must turn to a subject which is in some disrepute today: hypnotism. For many reasons, some excellent but others suspiciously weak, hypnotism is a subject which is seldom studied nowadays. If you have never had occasion to read a sound book on the subject, it may seem to you that some of the feats claimed for hypnotized persons cannot possibly have been done. There is some likelihood, however, that you have read at least one book on auto-suggestion, the method of healing which was so popular about a decade ago, and auto-suggestion is one of the by-products of the nineteenth-century study of hypnotism.
But few readers today know of the work, for instance, of Esdaile in India in the middle 1800’s: of the surgical operations he performed painlessly on hundreds of patients, of his comments on the rapid recovery of those who had felt no pain during the operation – an early contribution to the theory of the deleterious effects of “surgical shock.” The work of Braid and Bernheim is almost unknown, and Mesmer, who combined a fantastic theory with a mass of arrestingly effective experiments, is now looked on mainly as a quack.
There is no doubt that hypnotism is in its present disrepute partly because its early practitioners could not refrain from premature and fantastic theorizing, and because it became connected in the minds of the public with such subjects as “spirit-rappings” and “slate-writing” mediums, many of whom were later exposed as tricksters.
Possible experimenters were alienated from the subject because it was offered to the world with such unnecessary accompaniments as the hypotheses about “odic fluid” and “animal magnetism” – explanations which explained nothing. In addition to these prejudicial theories, experiments in anesthesia by the use of chloroform and ether were proceeding in the same years. Insensitiveness to pain reached by hypnosis was uncertain and presented many difficulties: not everyone was hypnotizable, and, even more important, not every physician was able to hypnotize. Inevitably, the more certain form of attaining anesthetization through the use of chloroform and ether was the practice which became accepted.
The study of hypnotism, which many acute observers of the middle and late nineteenth century believed to be the first step towards the freeing of mankind from physical suffering, as well as the overcoming of many temperamental difficulties and the cure of many vices, fell into a decline. With the emergence of the psycho-analytic theory, the defeat of hypnotism – at least for our day – was cemented.
Now, although the formula that we are about to consider has in it no trace of auto-hypnotism, it is still possible to learn from the despised procedure what it is that defeats us in our efforts to be effective. Consider for a moment the successes of a good hypnotist with a good subject: they sound utterly beyond nature, and for that very reason we have not learned from them all we might garner. One man, ordinarily suffering from vertigo at even a slight eminence, when hypnotized can walk a very narrow plank at a great height. Another, looking light and delicate, can lift a dead weight. A stammerer can be commanded to give a fervid oration, and will do so without showing a trace of the speech-defect which hampers him in his normal state.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable cases is one cited by F. W. H. Myers in his chapter on hypnotism in Human Personality: a young actress, an understudy, called upon suddenly to replace the star of her company, was sick with apprehension and stage-fright. Under light hypnosis she performed with competence and brilliance, and won great applause; but it was long before she was able to act her parts without the aid of the hypnotist, who stationed himself in her dressing room. (Later in this same case the phenomenon of “post-hypnotic suggestion” began to be observed, and the foundations of the Nancy school of auto-suggestion, of which Coué is the most famous contemporary associate, were laid.)
In the same chapter in which he quotes the remarkable case of the actress, Myers made a theorizing comment which is of immense value to everyone who hopes to free himself of his bondage to failure. He points out that the ordinary shyness and tentativeness with which we all approach novel action is entirely removed from the hypnotized subject, who consequently acts instead with precision and self-confidence.
Now the removal of shyness, or mauvaise honte (he wrote), which hypnotic suggestion can effect, is in fact a purgation of memory – inhibiting the recollection of previous failures, and setting free whatever group of aptitudes is for the moment required.
There is the clue. No sentence was ever more packed with rich implications for those who are in earnest about reorienting their lives towards success.
It has become a commonplace to say that we learn by “trial and error.” We learn by discovering that one course of action does not bring about the end we had in view; we try again, and perhaps many times, until we find the procedure which accomplishes our intention. We then adopt the last term in this series of acts.
That is the mental picture we make of the “trial-and-error” method of learning.
Roughly it is right, but it omits to emphasize one element of the process which, although we may not dwell upon it intentionally, is never forgotten by the Unconscious: the element of pain. We believe, or speak and write as though we believed, that the one success remains as the total residue of the series of attempts, and that it cancels from our minds all the failures which went before it. We do not take into account the tremendous importance to our future conduct of those discarded trials which ended in failure. We succeeded at last, it is true; but meanwhile we experienced failure, sometimes ridicule, sometimes real pain, sometimes grave humiliation. We by no means retain in our memories only the item of the final success, nor does the success operate to make the failures and pain unimportant to our Unconscious.
The Unconscious dreads pain, humiliation, fatigue; it bends its efforts even more ceaselessly to the end of avoiding pain than it does to the procuring of positive pleasures. So we are faced with a fact which at once accounts for much of the inactivity, the inertia, to which we succumb at moments when positive action would be to our advantage: that rather than face the mere possibility of pain we will not act at all.
Rather than revive the memory of our early failures, let alone run the risk of hurting ourselves anew, we will unconsciously decide to remain inactive, or we will choose to do something easier than we should attempt, or we will start on a program and carry it near the spot where we were hurt before, and there find any excuse to beat a hasty retreat, leaving the work undone, the reward ungathered. The childish Unconscious wins: at least we were not bruised again in an already tender spot.
It is utterly illogical, of course; in order to avoid a trivial discomfort we roll up a great account of failure to wound us in the future, we miss opportunity after opportunity which may never come again, we expose ourselves to far greater pain than that we manage to avoid. But at least the memory of that early humiliation can sleep, or only turn restlessly, half-awakened.
Now, if that is true – and only a little self-analysis will prove that it is true – how convenient it would be if each of us could carry a hypnotist about, to cast his spell whenever we had to get to work! How marvelous if each of us could have his own private Svengali! Impossible, of course; and, more than that, undesirable. Fortunately, it is not at all necessary to be put under the sway of another’s will in order to do our own work. The solution is far simpler. All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this:
Act as if it were impossible to fail.
That is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.
Clear out, by an easy imaginative feat, all the distrusts and timidities, all the fears of looking ridiculous which you may hardly suspect of being treacherous trouble-makers in your life. You will find that if you can imaginatively capture the state of mind which would be yours if you knew you were going towards a pre-arranged and inevitable success, the first result will be a tremendous surge of vitality, of freshness.
Then – well, the only way to put it is that it will seem as though your mind gave a great sigh of relief, of gratitude for the liberation, and stretched itself to its fullest extent. This is the moment where one may be forgiven for feeling that there is something truly magical about the whole affair. There will appear an extension of capacity which seems more than normal.
Then the long-dammed-up flow sets in: directly, irresistibly, turned at last in the right direction, the current gathers strength from minute to minute. At first you may still harbor some fear that the spell which worked so instantaneously may break in the same way. It will not, simply because it is no spell; it is a reminder to yourself of the way in which work can always be successfully undertaken. If you remember that, far from your seeing the successful action stop, you will find that each hour of unhampered activity opens out into a promise of others in the future. There may actually be some embarrassment from seeing too many expanding possibilities until you have learned to organize your new life.
Those fears, anxieties and apprehensions, you see, were far more than mere negative things. By acting as if they were important, you endowed them with importance, you turned them into realities. They became parasitic growths, existing at the expense of everything that is healthy in you. While we allow them to sap us, we are allowing the nourishment which should go towards expanding growth to be used for feeding monsters, cherishing the freaks and by-blows of the mind instead of its extraordinary and creative elements. So that it is not that one is suddenly given wonderful new powers; by ceasing to let fear hold its frustrating sway we come into the use of already existing aptitudes which we formerly had no energy to explore. We discover that we already possess capacities we had not suspected, and the effect, of course, is as though we had just received them. And the rapidity with which these capacities make themselves known when once the aspects are favorable for them is truly somewhat startling. It is even more enjoyable.
Next, there is the further experience of seeming to become, in contrast with one’s old self, practically tireless. Actual records of working periods introduced by using this formula would strain the credulity of those who have never yet had the experience. And these periods are not followed by any depressed reaction. There is always so much ahead, and it is so clearly seen, that there is no chance for depression to set in when the mind is turned back from its onward drive to consider all the tribulations of the past, all the possible mischances which might conceivably happen, it cannot, of course, at the same time explore the road into the future. But once absolve it of the thankless and unnecessary task, and it rewards you by seeming to fly where before it had stumbled and groped.
It takes some self-education to learn how to go from one item of successful work to the next, not to lose time and spend strength – much more happily, but just as surely – in gloating over either the ease with which the task as done or in contemplating too fondly the truly remarkable work one has just been so fortunate as to produce. But a few days’ Harvest Home is quite excusable; and since, still resilient and unexhausted, one looks forward to further activity with enjoyment, there is no permanent danger that the first success under the new regime will be the last.
If you are tempted to look askance at this procedure, to feel that you arc being invited to deceive yourself into a feeling of success, you are quite wrong. We are all pragmatists and empiricists in our daily life; what “works” for us is our practical truth, and becomes the basis of our further activity. “Our thoughts become true in proportion as they successfully exert their go-between function,” as William James says. And even more fully and convincingly, the late Hans Vaihinger worked out these conceptions in his book, The Philosophy of “As If.” Not everyone will go with him to the furthest boundaries of his theory, but it is certainly plain that in most matters of life each of us must act as if this or that fact were a self evident truth. For one thing, if we insisted on proving the reality or efficacy or even probability of most of the conceptions on which we base our practical procedures, we should have no time left in which to act. So, in general, we accept the premises for action which are presented to us on good authority, and use them as proved unless or until our experience causes us to doubt the wisdom of so doing. Then we may reexamine them and perhaps reach different conclusions from our mentors, but for the most part we all act as if our norms of conduct, our standards of values, were eternally and everywhere valid, so long as they prove practicable for us.
In everyday life, then, if you are ineffectual in your daily encounters and unproductive in your work, you are to that extent acting as if you willed to fail. Turn that attitude inside out, consciously decide that your “As If” shall be healthy and vital, shall be aimed towards accomplishment, and you have made success a truth for yourself.
“The law of nature is: Do the thing and you shall have the power; but they who do not do the thing have not the power.”
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