“Surtout, pas trop de zele
(Above all, not too much zeal)”
History has demonstrated again and again that individual success can be traced back to a skill or a unique trait that separates one person from the others. For Napoleon Bonaparte, it was his ability to absorb a massive amount of detail and to organize them in his mind that made him arguably the greatest military general the world has ever had to offer.
The tale of Napoleon Bonaparte is a classic ode to the underdog — He was pretty much an ambitious nobody who persistently rose through the military ranks during the French Revolution, proving his worth in one battle after another, becoming a deeply respected general, one who famously led his army across the snowy mountains and said, “For my army, there shall be no Alps”. He was then crowned as the first Emperor of France, building his country as one of the most powerful forces on the globe since the Roman Empire.
Yet, is also a tale of a man of greatness who becomes undone by his own arrogance. He had begun to believe that he was literally invincible.
This led him to overestimate his abilities and make a lot of cocky decisions, losing the long-term focus and rationality that made him such an effective leader in the first place. This came to a point where he was exiled to the island of Elba, where he was crowned as a “king” — A mockery to everything that he had built in France.
When he escaped and ruled France again, the nation was bankrupt and nearly depleted of its resources, but he was still adamant on winning. He was horribly defeated for good in the Battle of Waterloo, and was then exiled to the barren island of St. Helena, where he spent his final years.
The tale of Napoleon isn’t as ancient as it seems. The same delusion and grandiosity that intoxicated him have destroyed plenty of careers and lives throughout time.
Take Ty Warner, for example. His billion-dollar company Beanie Babies was destroyed after he bragged to his employee, “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” — Of course, “they” wouldn’t. Because raw talent doesn’t make great work. It must be accompanied by rigorous hard work, and topped off by one simple yet fundamental thing : Realism.
Nobody has a Midas touch, or the ability to turn everything she touches into gold. But if we aren’t careful, that’s exactly what we’ll get tricked into believing after tasting initial success — We become convinced that we have a feel for what the audience wants, that it doesn’t matter if our upcoming project actually sucks. People will love it because we made it, because we thought it through. We turn ourselves into an enemy of brutal objectivity and feedback, which are inevitably the essential ingredients of success.
So what can we do to achieve a balance between passion and reality?
Well, first of all, we’re often told to dream big, how it’s always better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit. While that’s a great advice to follow, we must constantly be aware of ourselves so that we don’t get too absorbed in the grand vision that we totally lose sight of what’s immediately in front of us.
It’s better that we devote the time and energy needed to climb the ladder rung by rung, to build our vocabulary and skill set — We don’t take on challenges that are too huge for us, but ones that are slightly above our current level of competency — Just like how you wouldn’t go for a weight that’s beyond your capacity when you’re just starting out in the gym.
This way, we don’t make the mistake of overestimating ourselves. When we fail, we fail in ways that we can recover. We don’t suffer from fatal blows or permanent injuries. Instead of going all out on creating a final product from scratch, launch a minimum viable product — A prototype for which you can get feedback from your audience, so that you know what it is that they actually like about your product and how you can maximize on that factor.
Secondly, know what your strengths actually are and leverage on them. You can become good at anything if you’re willing to learn, right? True — But do remember that you don’t have all the time and energy in the world. They’re finite resources.
It’s tempting to want to be good at everything. Look at the entrepreneurs who just aren’t meant to be in the entertainment business but ventured into singing and acting careers anyway. As time passes by they just become even more deluded, because they feel that their work isn’t appreciated.
The pathway to lasting success is to figure out what your calling is and to stay true to it. And I guess it’s necessary to say that you shouldn’t be ashamed of what it is. No calling is superior to another.
And hey, maybe you’re naturally inclined towards more than one field. Anton Chekhov for example naturally loved medicine and literature, and he excelled amazingly in both, as he also believed that those two fields fueled one another in helping him understanding the human being. (Be aware though that he actually loved them. He didn’t fake his way through. Maybe you need some time to try out different things and see what you love, and that’s okay.)
Thirdly, remember that you’re not as good as you think — Or as you want to think.
As Epictetus reflected, “You can’t learn that which you think you already know”, and that’s a fact. Think of someone like Socrates, who was looked up to as the wisest person of his time. He was superior because he knew that he knew nothing, and that opened his mind up to vast sources of knowledge.
When you fail, turn inward — What could you improve on? What different actions can you take? What thoughts led you to make bad decisions?
And when you succeed, turn outward — Which other person played a role in your success? What does luck have to do with it? Is it by the grace of God that you did it at the right time and place?
Very often, you’ll find yourself humbled by the answers to these questions.
Each new blank page, each new piece of writing, each new presentation, each new day is a chance to start back from square one, to start anew with a fresh perspective. Treat every new situation you encounter as different, because it contains something new for you to learn. And in it lies the chance to prove yourself again, to not rest on your laurels, your past achievements.
Because that’s what artists do : They keep going.