Behind Great Stories Of Success Often Lies A Tale of Heartbreaking Desperation
“Caesar’s wife must always be above suspicion” is an ancient, much repeated and deeply misunderstood phrase.
Today, it invokes the power of Rome’s famous emperor. However, at the time, it was uttered by an ambitious young Julius Caesar in order to sweep an adulterous scandal under the carpet, lest it hinder his upward rise.
Posterity is often like that. Stories of incredible success, told in retrospect, always carry an air of inevitability. So it is not surprising that we sanitize the stories of heroes, which often contain privation, hardship and humiliation. I, however, like the full versions, warts and all. They might not be as pleasant, but they are far more instructive.
A Not So Prodigal Son
Near the turn of the century, the son of a well-to-do industrialist, recently graduated from university, found himself poorly married, with a young child and unemployed. He fell into a deep depression, became nearly suicidal and wrote to his sister in a letter:
What depresses me most is the misfortune of my poor parents who have not had a happy moment for so many years. What further hurts me deeply is that as an adult man, I have to look on without being able to do anything. I am nothing but a burden to my family…It would be better off if I were not alive at all.
His father would pass away a few years later. By that time, the young Albert Einstein did find work as a lowly government clerk. Soon after, in 1905, he unleashed four papers in quick succession that would change the world. It was an accomplishment so remarkable that it is now referred to as his miracle year.
It would still be another seven years before Einstein finally got a job as a university professor. It wasn’t until 1919, when a solar eclipse confirmed his oddball theory, that he became the world famous icon we know today.
A First Rate Mind From the Third World
On a January morning in 1913, the eminent mathematician G.H. Hardy opened his mail to find a letter written in almost indecipherable scrawl from a destitute young man in India named Srinivasa Ramanujan. It began inauspiciously:
I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of £ 20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no university education but I have undergone the ordinary school. I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics.
Enclosed also was what looked like mathematical nonsense, using strange notation and purporting theories that “scarcely seemed possible.” It was almost incomprehensible, except for a small section that refuted one of Hardy’s own conjectures made just months before. Assuming some sort of strange prank, he promptly threw it in the wastebasket.
Throughout the day, however, Hardy found the ideas in the paper gnawing at him and he retrieved the letter. That night, he took it over to the home of his longtime collaborator, J.E. Littlewood. By midnight, they realized that they had just discovered one of the greatest mathematical talents the world had ever seen.
They invited him to Cambridge, where together they revolutionized number theory. Although Ramanujan’s work was abstract, it has made serious contributions to crystallography and string theory. Even now, almost a century later, his notebooks continue to be widely studied by mathematicians looking to glean new insights.
A Poor Girl From Hot Wells, Texas
In 1963, a middle aged Mary Kay Ash sat alone, depressed and jobless. Recently widowed (her husband had suddenly collapsed and died from a heart attack), and alienated from a male dominated workplace, she would later say, “I lived across the street from a mortuary and I began to wonder if I should call them up and tell them to ‘come on over.’”
Somehow, she managed to gather her strength and launched Mary Kay Cosmetics, which is today a $2.5 billion enterprise. The company became almost as much of a mission as an enterprise, providing women with inspiration and a receptive work environment. Fortune magazine named it one of the 100 best places to work in America.
While she didn’t unravel profound mysteries of the universe like Einstein or Ramanujan and direct sales organizations like the one she created are decidedly low brow, she made a difference to millions of women.
A Simple Question With No Answer
What’s astounding about stories like these is not that they are unique, but that they are relatively commonplace. Similar tales of heartbreak and desperation can be found in biographies of extraordinarily successful people such as George Soros, Karl Popper, Andy Grove, Walt Disney, J.K. Rowling and many others.
The significance lies not only in their personal success, but how much we all have benefited. If Einstein’s friend had not found him a job at the Swiss patent office or if Hardy had left the letter in the wastebasket we all would have lost something. (And yes, I do think the world is a better place with Harry Potter in it).
So it behooves us to ask, “How many have we lost?” How many are there in the third world, in our cities and our workplaces whose immeasurable talent will never come to fruition? Having spent most of my adult life in emerging markets (and currently traveling through Sri Lanka), I would guess thousands at the very least, perhaps millions.
It boggles the mind.