Success and the Acorn

Success and the Acorn

We hear so much about success! So many of us are striving for it, dressing up for it, climbing it’s ladder, hoping to attain it, aspiring for it, and a host of other upwardly mobile metaphors. On the web, there are personal development resources, life coaches, entrepreneurial tool kits, resources galore! And who doesn’t want to be successful in life, have “things,” be affluent, be respected. Success is certainly a worthy goal. But is wealth, fame, and honor what makes a person a success?

As one approach, we could take the Jesus route and talk about how difficult it is for a rich person to go through the eye of a needle, and how we should give all that we have to the poor and follow him, and so on, but that would be preachy and annoying, wouldn’t it?

What does it mean to be successful?  I can only tell you what it means to me. First, I don’t look at success as having anything to do with money, fame, or honor. That is totally secondary to any success you may find in your life. To me, success is discovering what part you are to play in this grand drama we call life. As Shakespeare said through his character, Jaques, in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages

Your primary role in life is your mission to carry out, whether you be a sewer worker or an investment banker;  If you find what it is you love and do it well, you are successful. You may not attract wealth, fame, and honor, but it doesn’t matter. We are placed here for a reason. When we discover it and pursue it with all our strength, we will succeed. I always like to quote Joseph Cambell’s wonderful statement, “Follow your bliss.” That which makes you feel alive, that which makes you feel euphoric about being a human being, follow it because that is your ticket to success.

This may bring much suffering, and usually does. No one ever promised us an easy life. Even the very rich have many problems and much suffering. If they do not find their niche, they suffer just like anyone else, sometimes more. 

James Hillman’s so-called “acorn theory” is another one of my favorite life philosophies:

This theory states that all people already hold the potential for the
unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the
pattern for an oak tree. The book [Soul’s Code] describes how a unique, individual
energy of the soul is contained within each human being, displayed
throughout their lifetime and shown in their calling and life’s work
when it is fully actualized.

Hillman argues against the “nature and nurture” explanations of
individual growth, suggesting a third kind of energy, the individual
soul which is responsible for much of individual character, aspiration
and achievement. He also argues against other environmental and external
factors as being the sole determinants of individual growth, including
the parental fallacy, dominant in psychoanalysis, whereby our parents
are seen as crucial in determining who we are by supplying us with
genetic material, conditioning, and behavioral patterns. While
acknowledging the importance of external factors in the blossoming of
the seed, he argues against attributing all of human individuality,
character and achievement to these factors. The book suggests
reconnection with the third, superior factor, in discovering our
individual nature and in determining who we are and our life’s calling (Wikipedia article on James Hillman, brackets mine).

If Hillman is correct, what about the evil, vicious killer or the crooked and greedy banker? Have these also sought and found their true role in the scheme of things? Hillman analyzes the question of Hitler’s life and if he exhibited signs of his calling early in childhood. It is a fascinating chapter that simply must be read in its entirety. Briefly, however, Hillman seems to conclude that there is a “demonic call,” just as one’s daimon calls one to fulfill a certain role in life. If the call of the demonic is heeded, one turns oneself over to the forces of evil. There is a choice in these matters.

 In a letter to H.G. Wells in 1906, American psychologist, William James, said this:

. . . the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease. 

This wonderful statement is very applicable today, after what we have witnessed in the world of finance these last five years. I could not agree more.

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