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Behind Great Stories Of Success Often Lies A Tale of Heartbreaking Desperation

2011 May 8
by Greg Satell

“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.

– Greg

 

4 Responses
  1. Prasanna Nandakumar permalink
    May 9, 2011

    Dear Greg,

    Inquisitive thoughts to ponder about. Thanks.

    Having spent my entire life(just 23 years old btw) in an emerging economy – India, I have had similar questions lingering in my mind for long now. There is definitely a lot of talent out here and it is going to take much more than a bunch of talent hunt competitions to bring them to light.

    I believe that as individuals the significant thing for us is to keep our eyes and arms wide open for such talents. It is important to not patronize or look down upon anyone based on what they do or where they hail from. This is not to say that we are going to continuously encounter many Ramanujans and Einsteins in our daily lives. But I am hopeful that through our lives, we would encounter such great minds at least once – especially if you’re living in an emerging economy. At that moment, one act of encouragement and kindness or the slightest nudge towards the right direction could make all the difference to their lives and that of many others. At least then, we could safely feel good for having pitched in to make this world a better place.

    Regards,
    Prasanna

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Prasanna. I certainly have encountered incredibly talented people in places not known for innovation. They’ve pushed me and made me better and I’m incredibly grateful to them.

    – Greg

  2. May 17, 2011

    Talent can be found in the most inauspicious places; sometimes it goes to waste, but sometimes it’s totally fulfilled but in ways that aren’t visible outside that person’s circle. In other words, you don’t have to become famous to change the world for the better. As Oscar Wilde put it, “My talent I put into my work. My genius I put into my life.”

    [PS. Julius Caesar wasn’t an emperor. His adoptive son Octavian Augustus was the first. That doesn’t alter the fact that this is one of the most thought-provoking, relevant and learned blogs around. Hugely impressive.]

    Greg Reply:

    Patrick,

    Thanks for the cudos! Much appreciated (along with your comment).

    You make a good point. It’s very possible to be fulfilled without acclaim and I’ve met some very talented people in emerging markets of moderate means and enormous talent who are perfectly happy.

    Moreover, the people I mentioned in my post were not seeking fame. Einstein merely wanted to get a job as a University professor (and the paper he wrote in his “miracle year” that he used for professional advancement – his doctoral dissertation – was the least interesting and has been largely forgotten). Ramanujan earned fortune neither fortune nor fame during his lifetime. Mary Kay Ash was just a woman who started a small business which later became successful.

    Nevertheless, I do feel strongly that their achievements are not only their own. We have all benefited.

    As for Caesar, you are technically right. Julius Caesar was not named Emperor in his lifetime (although he was Dictator). Nevertheless, all subsequent Emperor’s ruled in his name, so it’s more of a technical point.

    Thanks again!

    – Greg

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