[“Vanished”: One of my all-time personal favorites. New York, 1998. Backstory here.]
This is where having studied Latin in school comes in handy:
In Ancient Greece, victors at the Olympic Games were not given a gold medal. They certainly were not given multi-million dollar media deals. They were simply given a wee hat made out of leaves. A “laurel wreath”, to be precise.
The wreath’s raw materials would have cost a handful of spare change, in today’s money. Add- I don’t know- a couple of sheckles to pay somebody to make it- it probably would’ve only taken the person a few minutes. And the athlete would only keep it for a few weeks, tossing it away once the leaves turned brown.
Why did the Greeks choose to do it this way? Because the laurel wreath, unlike a multi-million dollar media deal, symbolized victory’s fleeting nature.
The Roman Emperors wore laurel wreaths for the same reason, as opposed to the gold and diamond-encrusted crowns preferred by Europeans Royalty, 1500 years later. Again, it was meant to symbolize the fleeting nature of their power. They might be the All-Powerful Ruler of The Empire, but hey, everybody goes eventually. Perhaps the later European Royals were in denial?
I remember seeing Mike Mills, a member of the famous rock group, REM being interviewed on the TV one or two years ago. The interviewer asked him, “So, when did you first feel like you were successful?”
Mike answered, to paraphrase, “The only time I felt like we had really crossed a line was when, twenty-odd years ago, we realized that we could do this full-time. That we wouldn’t need to work in a record store or whatever. Any ‘success’ since then was us simply building organically, piece-by-piece on what we already had going on.”
I can certainly relate. I often find fairly minor failures from a decade ago still hit me emotionally far more strongly than certain major successes I had in the last year or two. Perhaps part of it is simply timing. Perhaps by the time the eventual pay-off comes, you’re already far too busy worrying about the next project to waste time basking in former glories.
Failure, on the other hand, seems deeper and more lasting. I’m OK with that; I suspect it’s Nature’s little trick to keep us “driven”. Keeping us striving forward in a world where organic life is for the most part “nasty, brutish and short”.
In the great English poem, “If”, Rudyard Kipling refers to Triumph and Disaster as “those two imposters”. An utterly beautiful and powerful thought, one which I first read aged eleven, when my English teacher, Mr. Coates made me memorize the poem by heart, as punishment for turning in an assignment with sloppy handwriting. Thirty years later and I am only, just only, beginning to even slightly understand…
One thing I always recommend is when interviewing people, ask them about their failures rather than their successes. The Big One! People can always lie and exaggerate their successes and wins, but failure, oh no!!
And in discussing their failures, it shows what they learned and how they bounced back, which is a damn sight more relevant and interesting than a faked list of achievement words!!
Funny how a Project Manager has never gone over time or budget!!
This is definetely my favorite as well. It has a fantastic one-hit-wonder feel to it and pretty much summarizes the worst fears of a lot of people.
I also went to a school steeped in Imperial values – Clive (of India) was an alumnus – but as a teenager I found the values of “If” the movie resonated far more strongly than those of “If” the poem. Time has a habit of passing and changing things
A quote from another REM, Michael Stipe:
“We always knew he would be successful, he wasn’t just in it for the money”
Very powerful words indeed. “And never breathe a word about your loss;”… ah of all, this is the sweetest reward.
Thanks for the link Hugh, great poem and well worth remembering.
One I think about is of the victorious Roman Emperor after returning from war, would take a chariot ride through the Colosseum to a roaring crowd. While he did this on his chariot directly behind him would be a young man who the entire ride would whisper in his ear, “You are just a man.”
We often need those in victory and failure, the reminder “You are just a man.”
Been reading gapingvoid for just over a year & have never taken the time to comment. Just a simple ‘thanks’ for reminding me about “If” & for making me think with the ‘cartoon’ “Please”. That one always makes me cry… Triumph & Disaster, indeed.
When I dream of my success, I picture “me” featured in a magazine article “barefoot” in my home. This dream will be crushed when I read the article and notice that the magazine photoshopped in someone else’s feet.
When you are told you may have only 5 years to live, the first thoughts are not about your failures or successes. You don’t care about your bank account…the first thing you think of, “is I want more time”. You just want to live, even if you never make it on the Fortune 500 list.
—PS That was 7 years ago. The second opinion was better than the first doctor’s. I am fine, healthy and just as ornery as ever, but that moment is forever embedded in my mind. I feel like I have been given a second chance at life and I have since had several fabulous failures!
—I hesitate to send this comment, because it seems to smell like Chicken Soup. Ah, what the hell!
Great post as always, Hugh!
To quote another brilliant individual.
‘Where ever you go, there you are’ – Steven Wright
There is no such thing as failure. It’s simply called living.
G’Day Hugh and the rest of the GapingVOID community. I browse the sight every now and again since I first stumbled across the “creativity” essay written by yourself Hugh – awsomely inspiring and honest.
It is interesting to read about the fleeting nature of success and victory. And, if this fleeting nature is an organic funciton as we are suggesting here, then it can equally be applied to emotions, failures, and any other aspect of human life; Never can you always be content, always be happy, always be right, always be wrong, always be in love.
This is very comforting to me because some days I hate my wife, some days i hate my life, sometimes i question my dicisions, my directions, my dreams…to know that questioning them is human is comforting and makes me feel free to question some more!
thanks, Hugh! this post gave me two fun moments:
a) “triumph:disaster” and the much more general “everything:nothing” dialogue well together. as I’ve been dwelling on the tensions between the latter pair for a week or so, I’m now considering this added spin. intriguing.
b) blissfully (and in a non sequitur sort of way) reminded me of a beloved college history teacher from France, who spoke incessantly about “Julius Caesar’s laurel wraith.”
(p.s. – as a comment virgin, just want to tell you how much color your blog adds to my world. I share your cartoons at least several times a week, because… how could I not? cheers!)
I have been reading your blog enthusiastically for some time now and must confess a dwindling of that earlier enthusiasm. Today’s blog, however, long awaited it seems, was one of your best. Okay, I am a Kipling fan who tears up while reading Gunga Din to his kids. Or maybe it is just the old man in me recognizing your path as somewhat familiar. Cheers.
That was a great post, Hugh—very thought provoking.
Were I distributing points, I would give some to you for invoking your Latin studies and quoting Hobbes. Nicely done, sir. Nicely done.
Excellent post. I particularly like the segment about the transience of victory as symbolized by the laurel wreaths. With that in mind, resting on ones laurels seems even more foolish.
This also reminds me of a favorite quote from Samuel Beckett – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Thinking of your victories as “better failures” takes a little of the sting out of defeat and a little of the excess air out of your successes.
I can’t help but wonder if you still have messy handwriting…..
well, i can tell from the cartoons that you still sort of do have messy handwriting. I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘sloppy’ though, so I guess some good came out of it all.
we have ‘IF’ posted on the fridge…it got me through several rough spots…had to memorize it too, but it was for talking out of turn, not handwriting.
interesting that what was given as a punishment seems to be so well thought of by so many.
Hugh – the folks at Image Entertainment just announced they are re-releasing the movie “If” next month.
Do you think they read your blog?
if you would rather stay with Kipling I can recommend “The Man who would be King” – Sean Connery & Michael Caine are both great
hey Hugh! you suddenly seem to make sense.. haha.. Great post by the way.. as ever 🙂