The Makings of Success
Think back for a moment to the assemblies you attended during grade school. Do you remember singing, “This Land Is Your Land”? I have memories of the piano pounding out the melody in the Camp Avenue School gymnasium. If it’s not part of your grade school lexicon, you may have seen Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Pete Seeger’s grandson perform it at Barack Obama’s inauguration concert.
When I came across This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, I was intrigued by the idea of a book that centered on a single song. Author Robert Santelli has done his research, and he connects many dots to illustrate the ripple effect started by Guthrie. At times the book veers into a tangent, but it compensates with intriguing facts as it makes its way back to recounting the song’s evolution. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” Guthrie, along with the rest of the nation, heard Kate Smith perform it as her trademark song. In among his many jottings he scratched out his own response to the patriotic number, which he initially titled God Blessed America. Many iterations later, shaped by a variety of influences described in the book, it emerged as the well-loved song we Americans know today, despite the lesser-known verses that paint a less than rosy picture of our nation.
The winding path the song took after a long stretch buried in a notebook and the convoluted journey of Guthrie’s life make a compelling tale. Music seemed to pour out of Guthrie, but not everything came that easily. He was often unkempt and distracted, although he had no problem attracting women and fathering children. For much of his life he couldn’t seem to settle in one place or be a reliable father or husband. Later in life he was afflicted with Huntington’s disease and spent time in mental hospitals and medical facilities as his health deteriorated. He didn’t make it to age sixty.
Guthrie was one-of-a-kind, an anomaly, an outlier, but I’m not sure he would score very high on the success meter that’s put forth by society. His income was spotty at best. He cheated on his wives. He went on drinking binges. Although some of his lowest days were later attributed to the early stages of his disease, he had trouble with consistency and focus long before the illness surfaced.
Here’s the other side of the coin: so many people have deep love and admiration for the man. He wrote his heart. He had an incalculable influence on icons like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Not to mention his son Arlo, whom he taught all the verses of This Land so its original form would be preserved. Folks got together to raise funds for him when he fell on hard times, and the tribute concerts, songs, and albums since his death keep coming. If you measure success by the ripple effect of a single person, Guthrie’s score screams to the top of the meter. You get the same results if you measure it by creative spark.
I learned in my second read this week that the makings of success aren’t as simple as most of us believe. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell tells some fascinating stories about successful people. This is creative nonfiction at its best. Gladwell, with his precise and colorful sentences, got me interested in topics that I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward: stories about exceptionally healthy Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, the formulation of Canadian hockey teams, and Robert Oppenheimer’s strange journey toward creating the atomic bomb.
Gladwell makes a convincing argument that success stories are made up of so much more than hard work and determination. He doesn’t favor the word “luck”, but he does make a case for the importance of good timing. Example: successful Canadian hockey players are disproportionately made up of men who were born in the first quarter of the year. Coincidence? Well, Gladwell, like This Land’s author Santelli, deftly illustrates the chain of events that can ultimately shape a desired, or undesired, outcome. There’s a specific cutoff date for registration that begins the hockey player cascade. Although all the boys in a youth league might be ten years old, those born earlier are better developed (eight or ten months can make a big difference at this age). Long story short, this translates into early recognition, more attention, and more time on the ice, all of which ultimately support superior skills and better “luck” in the game. The book’s full of countless specific examples like this, each building a strong and eloquent case for Gladwell’s theory of what makes an outlier and what dictates success.
Outliers convinced me: unplanned, uncontrollable, and often overlooked factors have profound effects on the path of each individual. You might succeed because your parent coaches you in assertive communication, or because you happen to gain early, unlimited access to supercomputers. You might succeed because you and your band log more than 10,000 hours of stage time in punishing musical gigs. Maybe the way numbers are said in your language and the skills your parents honed on their farm predisposes you to acing your math tests, even when you get to calculus.
I’m not sure if this was Gladwell’s intent, but his essays about success made me more compassionate toward people who might be considered failures. Of course, there’s a time to pull oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. But it’s good to be mindful that one alteration in the many variables of a life might, literally, make or break an individual’s chances of reaching a goal.
Whatever its makings, success certainly isn’t a simple phenomenon. Guthrie, who was both drifter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Dust Bowl survivor and acclaimed lyricist, might have had something to add here. The America that prizes self-made men sometimes forgets to be compassionate toward those who have found themselves in a difficult spot. But both This Land and Outliers, in very different ways, shed light on the potential all of us have, not only to succeed but to help others on their journey. You never know where the ripples may go.
Books mentioned in this column: